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How the NSA is using Google, Facebook to spy on you

December 13, 2013 12:03 IST

The Intelligence Bureau has said that out of the billions of information that has been collected from India by the National Security Agency, a meagre 20 per cent is connected to terror activities. Vick Nanjappa reports

Around 6.3 billion pieces of information from internet networks have been snooped in in India, while an additional 6.28 billion calls from India were also collected by the National Security Agency.

Diplomats and politicians were warned in 2009 against using Gmail, Google and Facebook at their work places, as they are vulnerable to spying. The warning, however, was disregarded.

Indian security experts say that the biggest problem for India is Google and Gmail. A recent report shows that the NSA used Google to keep tabs on the several countries including India. It is said that NSA looks for ad tracking cookies in their wiretapped internet packs to identify people browsing the internet.

The NSA used Google’s ‘PREF’ cookie the most since it does not identify the user name or the email address but includes unique numeric codes that in turn helps identify the user’s browser to websites.

Documents obtained by the Washington Post show that with the help of these numeric codes, the NSA can target specific machines. The job for the NSA is made easy since they are able to obtain data through cookies under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The cookies which are assigned to users by advertisers on the net to target a specific audience is something the NSA has used to its advantage.

India has been accused of going soft on the NSA spying issue, as it allegedly does not want to ruin ties with the United States of America. While that is one part of the argument, what security experts say is that there should at least be a better system in place to secure ourselves. The Intelligence Bureau has stated that out of the billions of information that has been collected from India a meagre 20 per cent is connected to terror activities.

When the issue is hot each one seems to switch off Google and Facebook at work, but it does not last for long, says a bureaucrat.

The Internal Email Policy that is to be launched by the government appears to be a nonstarter. The directive in simple terms is that when you hold an important position there is no question of looking into services that have their servers in USA. If the NSA wishes they can track you all the time. But if you are on the Indian server then the job becomes difficult. India has no control over the servers in the USA.

The approach we can take is only preventive, says an Indian official. The American Congress which appears to be serious about bringing about curbs on the issue may not be able to do so since the argument for it is very strong.

NSA Director General, Keith Alexander, says there is no other way they know of to connect the dots and it is necessary to protect the country, and the risks it faces.

Officials working on the project told rediff.com that they are finding it very hard to implement these policies. The mindset is just not there among many and they tend to choose the easy option. In all probability the project may not be completed at all since everything begins with a mindset that we care about our data. There was supposed to be a class for officials conducted sometime this month to educate them on the new policy. But it seems it may not take place since there still are a lot of clearances and red tape before the policy sees the light of the day.

Officials say that the NSA programme did not involve terrorism alone. Documents obtained show there was a lot of focus on commercial, political and diplomatic issues. There is also evidence that the NSA had snooped into our nuclear and space programmes. All this information has been collected through services like Google, Gmail, Yahoo, YouTube, Skype, Hotmail, Facebook etc.

Indian security experts say the stand of the US on the issue is clear; they will continue to snoop. The only option before India is to be safe. It may be impossible to tell the entire country to stop using services that are based out of the US, but in departments of importance in the government, there is an urgent need to implement services with servers in India.

The Indian agencies are also considering speaking with telecom providers to introduce a national routing system on the lines of Germany. If introduced, Indian internet traffic and calls will be inaccessible to foreign agencies.

India also has fears about bringing a majority of the people under a central server that is accessible only by India. This would mean all the information -- both calls and internet traffic -- gets dumped onto one server.

India has its own programme called the National Cyber Coordination Centre. This basically is intended to do the same job that the NSA does. The National Informatics Centre which is setting up servers in India will become an all powerful body. The Indian government is trying to study this issue and ensure it is not misused, said an official.

Vicky Nanjappa in Bengaluru