The NSA marks and considers potential "extremists" all users of the internet anonymizer service Tor, German media reports. Among those are hundreds of thousands of privacy concerned people like journalists, lawyers and rights activists.
Searching for encryption software like the Linux-based operating system Tails also places you on the NSA grid, says a report by German broadcasters NDR and WDR. The report is based on analysis of the source code of the software used by NSA’s electronic surveillance program XKeyscore.
Tor is a system of servers, which routes user requests through a layer of secured connections to make it impossible to identify a user’s IP from the addresses of the websites he/she visits. The network of some 5,000 is operated by enthusiasts and used by hundreds of thousands of privacy-concerned people worldwide. Some of them live in countries with oppressive regimes, which punish citizens for visiting websites they deem inappropriate.
The system itself doesn’t appear to be compromised however, but the NSA gets data like IP addresses of those using it, enough to cross-reference them with other databases the agency has access to.
There are indications that NSA may be collecting not only the metadata of the people on the list, but also read their email exchanges with Tor.
An interest in Tor is not the only way to make it to NSA’s watch list. Even web searches for other encryption software makes you a target as well, the report said.
Disturbingly, NSA programmer comments in the source code label those picked up by the American system “extremists.”
The report says XKeyscore marks all people that hit the red light on its grid, with the exception of those connecting from members of the Five Eyes, a group of countries cooperating in intelligence gathering, namely the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
It was not immediately clear how the authors of the publication obtained the source code of XKeyscore software, but the existence of the system was revealed in 2013 through documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Ironically, Tor was originally created for the US Navy and still receives a major part of its funding from the US government - the same government that considers its users "extremists".
Meanwhile, former NSA employees-turned-whistleblowers are testifying before a German parliamentary committee as a Bundestag commission investigates US wiretapping methods.