Breaking news reports late Thursday evening, Feb. 27, delivered a story that brought the extent of government spying back to the forefront of reader’s minds. As its been reported, the United Kingdom has spies allegedly collecting and storing nude images and other types of personal media from webcams through Yahoo! messenger, a program from one of the worlds largest web portals and search engines.
ABC Online reported that the capturing of such personal and private citizen images by the UK’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, has been ongoing since 2008. Documents said to be released by Edward Snowden, reveal details that over the course of six months GCHQ’s webcam-raiding program, known as Optic Nerve, collected and stored over 1.8 million pictures in their government servers from unsuspecting Yahoo! messenger users. There has also been reports that Microsoft’s Xbox 360’s Kinect camera was being used as a surveillance device because it offers such regular webcam traffic. While passwords from Yahoo!’s messaging service are encoded, spies can still intercept information, decode and save text messages, chats, and live webcam feeds between individuals online. The spying program is said to capture images every five minutes, even if users had not been previously suspected of any illicit or illegal activity.
Yahoo! officials report that the company was unaware of such techniques being used by the UK government to collect explicit webcam images of citizens through their messenger program. They stated that they do not approve of access to such personal media through their web portal, and consider such violations of user privacy to be highly inappropriate. Yahoo! proceeded to request that the world governments reform their surveillance laws. They ended their statement with their commitment to upholding the highest standards of privacy and security, with goals of expanding encryption of highly sensitive or sexual material. Yet, if these reports of government spying are true, their words come as empty promises as nothing seems to be out of reach, or sight, of the government’s pair of digital eyes.
When GCHQ was asked to comment on their spying habits, they stated that they are committed to their policy of non-disclosure, yet insist that their work is in accordance with the legal and policy frameworks of the government, and that their activities are necessary and authorized.
It has been almost a year since Snowden revealed the depth of the NSA’s surveillance program, and detailed the many ways in which we can be, and, essentially are being watched. In December of last year, the Daily Mail reported that our phones and computers serve as devices that can track us, monitor us, and listen to our conversations; focussing on Apple products that were being planted with software that could turn on a smartphone’s cameras and microphone without any indication that these applications were functioning on the device itself. In a statement similar to Yahoo!’s, Apple denied being aware or having any knowledge of the targeting of their devices by the NSA.
As 2013 came to a close, the Washington Post delivered a report from an exclusive interview with Snowden conducted by reporter Barton Gellman. In his televised message, Snowden warned that the type of surveillance being conducted by agencies such as the NSA were more far reaching than we could ever imagine. Painting a picture that is far worse than Orwell’s novel 1984, Snowden disclosed the details of not just of a national, but global system of surveillance. The emphasis at the time was focussed on collecting data from phones such as recorded conversations, text messages, photos, and information that was stored in our applications. A month later, in January, President Obama issued mild guidelines for curbing government surveillance which did not extend much further than limiting access to mass telephone data.
Ironically, news of the UK’s intrusive collection of explicit webcam images and media through Yahoo! messenger follows reports yesterday of Boeing’s development of a new “Black Phone” which will ensure government agencies and contractors the highest possible privacy and security of data and voice communications on their smartphones. It seems as though privacy is increasingly becoming only something to be experienced by the privileged. With the news bringing attention back to the significance of global government surveillance programs and their vast reach into even the most personal of information, it’s a reminder that the fight for privacy and personal security continues, not just in the U.S. but in other countries as well.
By Natalia Sanchez