Webcam users who think their private video chats are secure need to think again. According to recently leaked documents by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor of “leaker” fame, a British spy agency, GCHQ, has been monitoring the world of video chat. In the process, the agency has intercepted and captured images from millions of Yahoo chat users. Ostensibly, the webcam surveillance, which recorded and stored some very explicit images, was done in the name of security. However, the agency’s surveillance cast a very wide net that captured the private images of innocent civilians whose only crime may have been that of “TMI” as in “too much information” shared.
GCHQ, aided by the NSA, which provided facial recognition software assistance, ran a secret surveillance program, called Optic Nerve, which was implemented in 2008 and by last reports still active in 2012. The program was designed to further facial recognition technology, which, according to the leaked documents is most accurate when the target is facing forward and upright, as they would be when using a webcam. They chose to monitor Yahoo because historically its webcam chat service was a favorite resource of security targets identified by the agency. The data collected during the secret surveillance was subsequently shared with the NSA.
For obvious reasons, Yahoo is not pleased that their chat service security encryption has been compromised. Further, the breach of trust with Yahoo users, who had reasonable expectations of privacy, has been described by the provider as “unacceptable” and a “whole new level” of privacy violation. Yahoo is vigorously demanding that the “world’s governments” take note of their outrage and reform current surveillance laws.
It is reasonable to assume that webcam users who shared explicit content are outraged as well, especially in the knowledge that their explicit images are now stored not only by the British spy agency, but also by the NSA in the U.S. Then there are those Yahoo users caught up in the surveillance net who were simply communicating with loved ones, peers or coworkers or otherwise conducting business as usual not knowing that they were being surreptitiously recorded.
The Optic Nerve secret surveillance program did not intercept and record entire webcam chat sessions but it did take a still image every few minutes from a global live feed of over 1.8 million users in just one six-month period. One of the documents leaked by Snowden purports that between three and 11 percent of these still images contained graphic nudity and the report expressed “surprise” at the number of users sharing explicit views of their bodies. Given that GCHQ’s stated purpose for the surveillance was to improve facial recognition capabilities, these still images of graphic nudity likely served more to titillate analysts than they did to facilitate any advances in security.
Based on the information leaked by Snowden, those who use a webcam service from not just Yahoo but any provider might want to think carefully about what they live stream especially if it is of an explicit or private nature. In the name of security, secret surveillance by both foreign and domestic agencies seems to have become the norm, not the exception. These agencies seemingly have no reservations nor reliable legal restraints on their ability to invade the personal privacy of everyday citizens, without their knowledge or consent, and regardless of innocence or guilt.
By Alana Marie Burke
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