Internet users hoping to protect their privacy by using anti-virus software, Web anonymizers, false identities and disabled cookies on their computer's Web browser have something new to worry about – a patent filed by the National Security Agency (NSA) for technology that will identify the physical location of any Web surfer.
Patent 6,947,978, granted this week, describes a process based on latency, or time lag between computers exchanging data, of "numerous" known locations on the Internet to build a "network latency topology map" for all users. Identifying the physical location of an individual user, reports CNET News.com, could then be accomplished by measuring how long it takes to connect to an unknown computer from numerous known machines, and using the latency response to display location on a map.
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The rate at which data travels over the Internet constantly varies due to the amount of traffic, the size of data files, the constant changing of hardware and software by millions of users. Sometimes the system is slow, sometimes it is fast. Because of this variation, knowing how long it takes for a signal to travel to a location and back is not sufficient to identify it's location. But knowing the latency of the entire system at a given moment and the latency for a specific computer provides a means of knowing relative locations, however fast or slow the Internet is operating.
While most users are unaware of it, their computers are able to "ping" website addresses to trace the route their connection took and how much time was required to complete the operation. Likewise other computer users – hackers, for example – can ping their computer as well when connected to the Internet. It is this feature that the NSA's patent seeks to exploit.
The NSA patent does not describe the intended use of the technology by the agency, noting only general uses like measuring the "effectiveness of advertising across geographic regions" or flagging a password that "could be noted or disabled if not used from or near the appropriate location," according to CNET News. But given NSA's status as the nation's premier cryptologic organization, it's unlikely the technology will be used to improve advertising.
NSA is so secret that its acronym has been said to stand for "No Such Agency." According to its website, "the National Security Agency/Central Security Service ... coordinates, directs, and performs highly specialized activities to protect U.S. government information systems and produce foreign signals intelligence information. A high technology organization, NSA is on the frontiers of communications and data processing. It is also one of the most important centers of foreign language analysis and research within the government."
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The agency has come under fire in the past for spying on American citizens. In the 1970s, the agency was forced to admit that it had used its eavesdropping equipment against Jane Fonda and other anti-Vietnam War activists. The revelation led to a 1978 law banning spying by the agency on U.S. citizens and resident aliens anywhere.
In 2000, following reports revealing the existence of Echelon, a massive data-mining project that filtered electronic and voice communications around the world, then director of the National Security Agency, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, and his boss, CIA Director George Tenet, assured Congress, "We protect the rights of Americans and their privacy. We do not violate them and we never will."
"If, as we are speaking this afternoon, Osama bin Laden is walking across the peace bridge from Niagara Falls, Ontario, to Niagara Falls, New York, as he gets to the New York side, he is an American person and my agency must respect his rights against unreasonable search and seizure as provided by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution," Hayden testified.
Post-9-11, if bin Laden goes online, NSA may actually know where he is.