NSA patents Internet tracing technology

In a sign big brother is becoming a commercially mature technology player, the US National Security Agency (NSA) not only wants to find out exactly where you are from your VoIP phone or PC - it wants to own the intellectual property around the locating process as well.

According to documents lodged with US Patent and Trademarks Office over the last week, the NSA is looking to patent what it calls a "method for geolocating logical network addresses", and names the Internet as one of many possible applications.

The NSA describes the finder technology as "using the time latency of communications to and from the logical network address to determine its location". "Minimum round-trip communications latency is measured between numerous stations on the network and known network addressed equipment to form a network latency topology map," the agency claims.

Inventors of the technology are listed as Stephen Mark Huffman and Reifer and Michael Henry, with the patent assignee listed in the patent document as the director of National Security Agency.

The lodgement of a patent for the technology is also an effective admission by the NSA it has long held an offensive capability to physically locate people or organizations via their presence in cyberspace - a capability it apparently now feels comfortable divulging in the public domain and claiming credit for.

In terms of what the world's largest surveillance agency hopes to achieve through securing such intellectual property, the agency says there are "many advantages".

"For example, in the realm of advertising, knowing the geographic distribution of sales or enquiries can be used to measure the effectiveness of advertising across geographic regions.

"As another example, logon IDs and passwords can only go so far in providing security when a remote user is logging into a system. If stolen, they can be easily used to [allow others] to masquerade as valid users.

"But if an ability to check the location was part of the security procedure, and the host machine knew the physical location of the remote user, a stolen logon/password could be noted or disabled if not used from or near the appropriate location.

"Network operators could benefit from knowing the location of a network logon to ensure that an account is being accessed from a valid location and logons from unexpected locations could be brought to the network operator's attention."

Just what the network operator does after finding the location of a hostile user is up to them - but in the case of the US military, it doesn't take much imagination.

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