Linux Lands on NSA Watch List

Visiting a popular Linux Website could make an individual a target of government scrutiny.


New disclosures and investigations into the activities of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) have revealed fresh insights about the targets of cyber-surveillance activities. Among the new revelations are details about some of the target locations for the NSA XKeyscore system, which monitors and collects Internet data.

According to a report first published in German on Tagesschau on July 3 and followed up by an English language report on DasErste, Linux users are an area of specific interest for surveillance. The report details rules in the XKeyscore source code that identify visitors to the Linux Journal Website, the Tor Onion Router site as well as the Tails Linux distribution site. NSA's interest in Tor has been previously documented in an October 2013 report.

What's different about the latest disclosure is the allegation that the NSA is targeting users for surveillance simply because they visited the Tor, Linux Journal or Tails Websites.

Linux Journal is the longest standing Linux publication in existence, first published in April 1994. Until August 2011, Linux Journal had both an online and a print edition. Now it is only available as an online magazine, but it continues its mission to provide Linux content. According to the DasErste report, the NSA considers Linux Journal to be an "extremist forum."

"Up until this point, I would imagine most Linux Journal readers had considered the NSA revelations as troubling but figured the NSA would never be interested in them personally," Linux Journal columnist Kyle Rankin wrote. "Now we know that just visiting this site makes you a target."

Katherine Druckman, who lists her title as "webmistress" of Linux Journal, is among those who are taking the NSA disclosure in a different light. In a post on Linux Journal titled "Are you an extremist?" Druckman notes that many Linux Journal readers could, in fact, be considered to have extreme habits.

"We're extremely passionate about our hobbies and professions, extremely excited by innovative technology, and extremely supportive of the open source software community," Druckman wrote. "So maybe we are extremists."

The Tails Linux distribution is the operating system favored by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as a means to help enable privacy. An acronym for The Amnesic Incognito Live System, Tails recently reached its 1.0 release (see the eWEEK slide show on it here).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has responded to the latest NSA allegations on surveillance, noting that privacy is a fundamental right.

"Learning about Linux is not a crime—but don't tell the NSA that," the EFF stated. "Everyone needs privacy and security, online and off."

The EFF makes the analogy that it isn't suspicious for someone to buy a lock for the front door of their house or curtains for their windows. As such, if an individual just goes online to search for information about curtains or locks, they shouldn't qualify for additional surveillance.

With the disclosure that Tor and Tails Linux users are the subject of NSA scrutiny, the EFF argues that it's now more important than ever that more people use privacy tools.

"The more ordinary people use Tor and Tails, the harder it is for the NSA to make the case that reading about or using these tools is de facto suspicious," the EFF said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.