Anyone who uses or simply searches for tools that mask your identity online could be labeled as an "extremist" by the National Security Agency.
A series of investigative reports out of Germany this month has exposed an NSA source code that mark for closer surveillance the IP addresses of computers looking for anonymous avenues through the internet. The importance of networks such as Tor and Tails has grown steadily since Edward Snowden's revelations went public.
Bruce Schneier, a renown cryptographer and security expert who lives in Minneapolis, called the news "very disturbing." On his blog Tuesday, he wrote, "It's possible that anyone who clicked on this link -- with the embedded torproject.org URL above -- is currently being monitored by the NSA."
As someone who's worked with Glenn Greenwald on the Snowden files, Schneier believes the new source code comes from a second NSA leaker. It's making the rounds online with a once-secret PowerPoint presentation titled "Tor stinks," in which the feds lament not being able to completely break through the anonymity software.
The source code appears to have been set up to monitor folks outside the U.S. -- as well as Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand -- but the way it's written includes volunteer-run Tor servers at home.
The code rules also contain filters for IP addresses in the states, but it's not always easy to see where the user is located. As the Daily Beast notes, some versions of the code appear to be written broadly enough to allow targeting inside the U.S. The coverage in German newspapers shows that one rule targeting MixMinion (another privacy tool) includes all traffic coming to and from a server located on the campus of MIT.
It's clear that privacy tools have both a dark and light side. Someone could use it for trafficking as easily as chatting with friends. That just depends on the type of person you are.
But Dan Feidt, a media activist in Minneapolis, tells us that he fears this might have a chilling effect on political organizing, because the NSA has been known to share data with foreign countries -- places "where the government is playing whack-a-mole to get rid of alternative news sources." In his support of democratic protests in the Middle East, Feidt has seen how quickly people who try to livestream video get shutdown.
"Those countries can be hostile to social movements," Feidt says. "Tor is one of the few ways you can get around the direct targeting of IP addresses that occurs routinely."
At the moment, it still is. Those who are serious about this stuff should know the newest version of Tails drops next Tuesday. Happy hiding.