Secret code indicates NSA tracks users of privacy tools, report says

Although unverified, the code indicates a broad effort to monitor those interested in protecting their online activities

A NSA spying tool is configured to snoop on an array of privacy programs used by journalists and dissidents, according to an analysis of never-before-seen code leaked by an unknown source.

The code, published as part of investigation by two German broadcasters on Thursday, contains tracking specifications for XKeyScore, a powerful NSA program that collects and sorts intercepted data.

XKeyScore came to light in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, but some observers believe the latest information -- which adds greater detail on how the agency monitors people trying to protect their privacy online -- may have not come from the documents he passed to journalists.

The broadcasters, Norddeutscher Rundfunk and Westdeutscher Rundfunk, did not reveal their source for the code but claimed in a report that former NSA employees and experts "are convinced that the same code or similar code is still in use today,"

The report describes how the code enables XKeyScore to track users connected to The Onion Router, known as TOR, a network that encrypts data traffic through random servers in order to obscure identification of a web surfer.

TOR, a project initially started by the U.S. Navy, is considered a critical privacy enhancing tool and one that has hampered NSA surveillance in the past.

The report contends the NSA is monitoring two TOR servers in Germany. One is run by Sebastian Hahn, a 28-year-old computer science student at the University of Erlangen. The server, known as a Directory Authority, a critical part of TOR's infrastructure, supplies a list of relays in the network to computers connecting to the network.

The NSA's collection of metadata about people connecting to the server puts those people at risk, the report quoted Hahn as saying.

The NSA also tracks the use of non-public TOR relays, which are supplied to users upon request in countries known to actively block TOR relays, such as in China and Iran, the report said.

Other rules in the code indicate the agency is tracking people who visit public websites for privacy-related projects including the TOR Project; Tails, a privacy-focused portable operating system; and the Linux Journal website, the report alleged.

A note within the code appeared to cast a disparaging view of Tails, a respected privacy project, describing it as "a comsec mechanism advocated by extremists on extremist forums".

"In actuality, the software is used by journalists, human rights activists, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who merely wish to protect their privacy," the report contends.

It noted that the rule for monitoring the TOR Project's website was crafted to avoid collecting data on people believed to be in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S., the so-called "Five Eyes" states that collaborate on signals intelligence.

That is presumably to avoid violating rules that prohibit unfettered data collection on citizens, one of the core issues raised after Snowden's leaks became public. But the report noted no such rule was incorporated into the code for monitoring the Tails and Linux Journal websites.

Other services monitored include HotSpotShield, FreeNet, Centurian, FreeProxies.org, MegaProxy, Privacy.li and an anonymous email service called MixMinion, the report alleged.

NSA could not be immediately reached for comment. When queried it told the broadcasters in a written statement that "the communications of people who are not foreign intelligence targets are of no use to the agency."

The agency maintained XKeyScore complies with U.S. President Barack Obama's directive from January, which said privacy interests of people worldwide are considered by U.S. signals intelligence activities.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

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Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service

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