The NSA may not be listening to your private phone calls, but it has been watching your private parts

Summary:The U.K. and U.S. government's ability to tap into webcams — and directly into your living rooms and offices — shows the biggest and most blatant lack of respect for people's privacy by Western governments in living memory.

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In light of the latest global surveillance leaks on Thursday by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden, scanners at U.S. airports that catalog you in full birthday-suit glory seem somewhat tame. 

The latest details published in The Guardian reveal one the most egregious privacy invasions committed by a democratic power, ensnaring millions of Yahoo Messenger users through the watchful eye of their own governments.

Between 2008 and 2010, Britain's GCHQ, in cooperation with the U.S. National Security Agency, ran the "Optic Nerve" program which covertly intercepted and collected webcam imagery from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally. According to comScore data, Yahoo Messenger had 4.3 million unique users in January 2014. The agencies were running the program for automatic facial recognition experiments, to monitor existing suspects and to "discover new targets of interest" for the intelligence organizations.

Images were taken as often as once every five minutes, a limit issued to avoid overloading GCHQ systems, as well as to "partly comply" with human rights legislation.

As much as between 3 percent and 11 percent of the snapped imagery was considered "explicit."

The webcam data was collected through submarine fiber internet cables , which GCHQ had tapped through the Upstream program. The data was fed into the NSA's XKeyscore program , making it searchable by analysts. 

The images collected included vast amounts of U.S. and U.K. citizen data, but unlike in the U.S., U.K. authorities are not legally obliged to "minimize" any domestic data it receives. But, they do have to seek additional warrants to search the data. 

Yahoo "strongly condemned" and denied any complicity in the program, calling it a "whole new level of violation of our users' privacy," according to the publication.

It remains unclear from the documents exactly how much access the NSA has to the Yahoo webcam database itself, or how Yahoo-connected webcams were exploited.

"The most hated man on the Internet"

In January, an address by U.S. President Barack Obama laid out a number of reforms to try and calm international anger caused by the former NSA contractor turned whistleblower.

Obama refused to apologize for the too-free hand of the agency in spying on both the general public and international allies, and instead claimed that the NSA was, "not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails."

Meanwhile, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who oversees GCHQ's activities, said in June 2013 "law-abiding" citizens have "nothing to fear" from the British intelligence services.

Huh? The agency may not be listening to your private phone calls, but they are cataloging your private parts.

Unless there is some link between "terrorist" activities and the rate of porn viewing online, as well as the number of criminals sitting in their birthday suits while talking on instant messenger, the speeches by U.S. and U.K. leaders now ring even emptier than before. The latest revelations show that ordinary citizens are being targeted, purely because they like the convenience of talking to each other through the Web. Whether the NSA is fully responsible for this program or simply provided assistance, makes no difference.

While such blatant disrespect and wholesale abuse of power can remind us of surveillance cases many U.S. and U.K. citizens abhor — not limited to the Great Firewall of China and the ongoing limited Internet freedoms in Russia — there is another example closer to home that includes activities which stink in the same way the NSA and GCHQ now does.

Does Hunter Moore ring any bells?

Moore has been branded by many "the most hated man on the Internet" for running revenge porn website IsAnyoneUp.com, where intimate images of former partners were posted without consent by those seeking revenge. Not only were images posted, but also names, locations and links to social media accounts were often included. 

"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience." — President Obama, June 2013

While some images were submitted by users, Moore was later arrested and charged with the theft of images from hacked email accounts; and a 15-count federal indictment accused him of conspiracy, computer hacking, aggravated identity theft, and aiding and abetting.

The punishment? Up to five years in federal prison. 

If Moore is the most hated man on the Internet, perhaps we should consider the U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies in the same, albeit ironic, light.

After all, as GCHQ "does not have the technical means to make sure no images of U.K. or U.S. citizens are collected and stored by the system," the governmental body probably has a pornographic treasure trove far beyond Moore's wildest dreams.

"Trade-offs" on privacy

The latest public-relations disaster for the British and American surveillance machine and its porn-viewing ways springs to mind in another speech that President Obama gave in June 2013.

While speaking to reporters at Silicon Valley, Obama called NSA surveillance a "modest encroachment" on privacy, saying: "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience... There are trade-offs involved."

However, there is nothing "modest" about the latest NSA and GCHQ revelations. Instead, the Optic Nerve document leak suggests the NSA, in cahoots with its British counterpart, has danced gleefully on the pyre of privacy, exulting in the burning cinders and ash of what remained of our belief in individual respect and dignity.

In fact, just shy of a year ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was denied permission to surreptitiously snoop on an alleged hacker through his webcam by a federal magistrate judge. The order was declined based on grounds that it was too broad and overly invasive. Crucially, the judge said the FBI had failed to meet the Fourth Amendment's requirements for the target's computer, and the order was denied.

But the NSA's favorite secretive and shadowy Washington D.C.-based Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would have, and clearly must have reached a different conclusion. If not, the NSA's actions likely would have violated the constitution almost certainly.

There is a saying in Britain — "An Englishman's home is his castle." Whether people choose to watch porn, exchange dirty talk over Yahoo or do the hula naked in front of a webcam with a bottle of tequila, should be beyond the scope and care of government employees — which, let's remind ourselves that their sole purpose is to protect us, bolster the economy, and keep order in return for authority and a salary. Instead, the U.S. and U.K. authorities have become the poster children for those drunk on power, revealing a complete and blatant disregard for the general public as well as overseas allies, just because they "can."

Is it really in the public interest for money and time to be spent on programs which involve an uncomfortable Human Resources department and governmental employees cataloging the faces and genitalia of Internet chat users, rather than, say, using those resources to fund more appropriate programs — actually designed to protect the public — or create jobs and opportunities within the society such agencies are meant to keep ticking over?

President Obama said in his address: "We're going to have to make some choices as a society."

Perhaps he's right. Perhaps we should choose to rein in those who believe they are above decency; above duping those who vote for and place their trust in them; above adhering to what we consider in the West to be basic respect — all in the name of the fight against the terrorism buzzword.

It's not to say that surveillance and intelligence isn't required to protect a country and keep citizens safe. It is, just as Obama said, a matter of trade-offs and balance.

However, lines must be drawn. We might like to be politically correct in the West and dance around delicate and potentially explosive diplomatic issues, but perhaps we now need blunt, strong language instead.

This kind of widespread, mortifying surveillance by members of the public on the public needs to stop, and stop now — this is not a "trade-off" — this is outright abuse of power and technology to leach away at the rights and privacy of the general public both in the U.S. and across the pond. Those in power, in places we have granted them, should apologize — and not just because of this latest leak or the catalog of naughty bits anatomists would give a right arm for, but for the continual, secret erosion of things that are important in life. Namely, dignity and respect.

If not, I guess we should welcome George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" with open arms. Hello, Big Brother. 

Topics: Security, Networking

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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About

Charlie Osborne, a medical anthropologist who studied at the University of Kent, UK, is a journalist, freelance photographer and former teacher. She has spent years travelling and working across Europe and the Middle East as a teacher, and has been involved in the running of businesses ranging from media and events to B2B sales. Charli... Full Bio

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