Webcam Images Used to Catch Suspects and Spy on the Innocent

webcamBoiled down to its simplest form, retrieving webcam images from remote users can be used with either good intentions or bad intentions, for lawful purposes or illegal purposes. “Webcam images” has popped up as the subject of two stories today demonstrating the difference in user privacy. Sometimes webcam images are used to track down suspects but they are also used to spy on innocent people.

The Wichita police, in an instance where technology is being used to catch a suspected criminal, are using social media to spread webcam images taken from a stolen laptop. The laptop was stolen on Feb. 19, and a few days later, the owner of the stolen laptop used its built-in webcam to remotely take a picture of whoever was using the computer.

The webcam images of the suspect were turned over to the police, who posted the picture on Facebook to see if anyone could identify the suspect. Capt. Doug Nolte said that 4,500 people have already seen the image and that police are hoping with more views someone will recognize the male suspect. Nolte added that people need to be aware this technology exists.

On the other hand, UK spy agency GCHQ would probably rather keep this knowledge secret. With the assistance of the U.S. NSA, GCHQ has collected and stored webcam images of millions of Yahoo chat users. The report is based on the files leaked by Edward Snowden, the notorious NSA whistleblower, who revealed the government’s use of technology to monitor suspects and innocent targets alike.

GCHQ collected images from more than 1.8 million users across the world in 2008 alone, when the operation began as a prototype, but documents provided by Snowden reveal that the operation was still active through 2012. The operation, labeled Optic Nerve, saved Yahoo chat images to agency databases, taking snapshots from a chat feed every five minutes. Users were targeted indiscriminately, regardless of whether the individuals were suspected of wrongdoing.

Among the images, there are an estimated 3 to 11 percent that contain “undesirable nudity.” One of the leaked documents concluded, “it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.” Talk about “Big Brother” exploiting technology and literally exposing people who were never intelligence targets.

Yahoo was furious over the reports and denied any knowledge of the operation. The company said that if the reports are true, it “represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy.” Yahoo reaffirmed its commitment to preserving its users’ trust and security, and urged the world’s governing bodies to reform surveillance law.

GCHQ declined to comment on the story, whereas the NSA would not answer questions about its access to the operation, but did say did not act as GCHQ to collect any intelligence the agency could not collect legally itself.

The story is just another illustration of the widespread net of espionage cast over innocent people. Alex Abdo, an attorney for the ACLU, said the report reveals the “importance of the debate on privacy now taking place and the reforms being considered.” Access to technology, such as webcams, that can be used to spy on individuals needs to be regulated as a means to catch criminals, not survey the innocent.

Opinion by David Tulis


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