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

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.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Security, Networking
166
privacy-woman-eyes-code-620-thumb-620x377

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

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

166 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I didn't sign off on this and accept a certain level of risk in my life...

    "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience... There are trade-offs involved."

    For some reason....the US government seems to think all its' citizens asked for this level of scrutiny/security.

    I'm pretty self-sufficient and self-relyant, that I don't need a babysitter.

    I would have chosen to go to prison if I wanted this level of control ("Security") by my government...because then I'd at least get a free meals, medical and free education.

    The time is approaching, when a move outside of the US may be in order.

    3 more years....Best wishes for all on surviving through it all.
    GotThumbs
    • Citizen criminals

      In the USA , it seems ALL citizens are candidate criminals BUT, unfortunately, not yet prosecutable. We will keep looking eventually we will find something.

      'Innocent, until proven guilty" has transformed into "Investigate, until proven guilty"

      The US government is out of control.
      NoSpark
      • Sad but true - we are all criminals, breaking some law or another

        It's true. To add a bit.. Our legal system has become so complex and excessive, as we try to legislate the perfect society, that I dare say *any* citizen could be convicted of some crime or another.
        jcollake
        • the same could be said for every sitting official too.

          when the ignorant make ignorant laws, the law's first use should be used to imprison their author.
          Reality Bites
    • "The time is approaching, when a move outside of the US may be in order."

      LOL you think other Gov't are not doing this - OMG how naive you are. US and UK just got caught by some dip shit.
      ScanBack
      • Try moving to N Korea

        They have not gotten cought, neither they will.
        Write us a letter from there and tell us how much better it is.
        ForeverSPb
      • caught by some dipshit...

        ... so what does that make the NSA fatboys, eh?

        ... dope
        btone-c5d11
    • The is approaching, indeed

      For the Second Amendment to be used for its original purpose.

      America does not have a government. It has a criminal enterprise masquerading as a government.
      crimethink
      • So who were you planning on shooting?

        Or do I get to find out when you come to my door?
        John L. Ries
        • Gee Johnno...

          ... you are more likely these days to get shot by a feral lea boi than a housebreaker... and don't answer the door if you have a game controller in your hand...
          btone-c5d11
      • Government in the uk

        are all registered Companies! Every single Government agency, the police, House of Lords, Parliament, Parties etc, they are all registered as Companies. Somewhere in the south of England the police is run by IBM. County Councils are Companies. So what do anyone expect? You are all slaves (workers) for a big company and when your company want, they can spy on you! You (your parents) signed a contract by registering your birth! So stop whinging and fulfill your contract!
        wensleydale
        • A corporation sole...

          ...is a bit different than a joint stock for-profit corporation. I don't think the Foreign Office, for example, is in it for the money.
          John L. Ries
          • Reply to "A corporation sole..."

            Read up a bit more. They really are in it for the money.

            E.g. The U.S. was turned into a corporation. That is a verifiable fact. The U.S. went bankrupt. Now the powers-that-be, the bankers of the City of London, have "salvage" rights on the sunken (bankrupt) ship. The Federal Gov't in the U.S. now collects "income tax" which almost dollar-for-dollar pays for the "interest" "owing".

            Ask yourself, since when does a sovereign government with the power to issue real money ever "owe" anyone? When it's been "incorporated", of course, and is no longer its own.

            Look up:

            The Act of 1871: The “UNITED STATES” Is a Corporation.
            Time Agora
    • 3 more years until what?

      @GotThumbs - I agree with most of what you said, but what happens in 3 more years? Hopefully you're not thinking that a new President is going to change this? I firmly believe this would have happened regardless of whether or not Obama was in office.
      Roger.H
    • 3 more years? Hah!

      Don't kid yourself. This has nothing to do with any one administration. It's a steady progression of government intrusion that advances regardless of which party is in power or who is President. It's only going to get worse, no matter who is elected next.
      daniel1948x
  • Benjamin Franklin said it best

    "They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." 1755

    Repeal the Patriot Act. That's the law they hide behind as their justification, including the expansion of FISA. Whatever good it may or may not have done it was a mistake from the get go.
    MajorlyCool
    • Doesn't need to be repealed

      It just needs to be declared unconstitutional by Federal judges who will actually honor their oaths.
      crimethink
      • No such thing.... a judge is nothing a mercenary puppet.

        They do exactly as the money tells them to.
        Hasn't been a judge with an independent thought in centuries.
        Reality Bites
        • Thanks for reminding us all....

          that we too often value prosperity much more highly than ethics.
          Willnott
      • B'nai B'rith

        Yes, and drop the oath to the Kol Nidre --
        Cmndr.G