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7 more things NSA could be watching, according to security experts

John Brandon | Jan. 22, 2014
We know the National Security Agency monitors emails and social networks. What else could the NSA be monitoring? Security experts offer their (scary) thoughts.

For many in the IT industry, 2013 will be remembered as the year we found out the National Security Agency is watching us. So far in 2014, President Barack Obama has announced limits to the NSA's data gathering practices, especially regarding phone records. But some are disappointed in NSA surveillance reform, noting it mentions nothing about encryption or monitoring Internet communication.

But what exactly is the agency watching? According to companies such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo, we know NSA is peeking at emails and social networking activity. asked security professionals to tell us what else NSA might be watching. Some of their ideas might seem far-fetched. But then again ...

Your Physical Location
There's little doubt the NSA can track your whereabouts, especially if you have opted in to applications on your phone that share your location already. Jonathan Weber, an app developer and security consultant with Marathon Studios, says the GPS chip in a smartphone could reveal, among other things, when someone meets with a terror suspect or attends an event sponsored by an insurgent group.

Household Wi-Fi Devices
Could the NSA know about your Nest thermostat? Anthony Di Bello, a director at the cybersecurity firm Guidance Software, thinks it's possible. Anything that connects to Wi-Fi and then to the Internet is susceptible to surveillance, he says. The Wi-Fi monitoring might be used to track a suspect's location - knowing when the temperature rises on a Nest, or when there's a spike in Netflix activity, especially at certain times of the day, can give authorities a clue that someone is home.

Movie Rentals
Does the government really care that you just rented The Long Ranger on Redbox? And is there really a way the agency could even know your rental history? Alok Bhardwaj, the founder of Epic Privacy Browser, says the NSA can likely track credit card transactions. We also know the data from movie purchases and rentals is sold to advertisers and other third parties. It's conceivable, he says, that the NSA can flag someone who keeps renting movies about government insurgencies.

Images on Flickr, Other Photo-sharing Sites
Billions of images are floating around the Web. Most of them are innocuous, and it seems unlikely that the NSA could track them on individual sites such as Flickr or Twitter. However, if the NSA gained access, it could take an algorithm and image-recognition software to spot someone who's posting images of bomb-making equipment or maps of a government facility. The problem, Di Bello says, is how the surveillance impacts our freedom when the agency finds a false positive. Some people might just have an interest - or an actual job - related to bomb disposal techniques.


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