Webcam Interception the Watched and the Watching

Webcam Interception the Watched and the Watching

Spies in Britain have watched people around the world using Yahoo’s webcam chat service. The latest in the leaked documents intercepted by Edward Snowden show that an operation called “Optic Nerve,” collected images for at least four years. However, who has the images stored and who was watching?

The operation was run by UK surveillance agency GCHQ. They collected thousands of snap shots from webcams around the world as people used the service to chat to each other. Reportedly, they did not capture any video footage, but the program was set up to take a picture every five minutes. However, seemingly unknown to those who designed the operation, this meant that thousands of nude images were also collected. In six months the spies captured images from 1.8 million yahoo users in an attempt to develop facial recognition software that they could reportedly use to track criminals. However, the majority of those pictures were from members of the public, whose only guilty secret was an indulging in a video form of sexting via webcam.

GCHQ reportedly tried to program the system to weed out images of nudity by labelling any pictures with large amounts of flesh colour in them as separate to the ones they were collecting. However this led to images of faces being labelled as pornographic.

The National Security Agency (NSA) was also reportedly involved in the operation. So far, they have refused to offer much comment on the situation. A spokesperson would admit only that the agency would not ask a foreign organisation to undertake an operation that would be illegal under American law. The American Civil Liberties Union is angry over NSA’s involvement and is asking for the agency to confess to what they call a “massive and unprecedented invasion” of the rights of private citizens.

The NSA has already come under fire for being in league with British spies over “dirty tricks” used to intimidate and discredit anyone seen as an adversary. The group entitled the Joint Threat Research and Intelligence Group, was formed as a cyber attack force using computer viruses, mass propaganda campaigns over social networks and virtual “honey traps” to discredit hackers, suspected criminals, terror groups and even nations. This connection to the NSA makes the webcam hacking all the more sinister as they could use images against those they wished to discredit. Is this perhaps an extra reason behind the interception of images via webcam? Was there something else they were watching?

Yahoo has come out in full force against the revelation stating they had no prior knowledge of the abuse of their users. They are calling for stronger reforms to surveillance laws. Their own internet security which theoretically should have offered some protection to its users has come under fire during the debate, but they claim that the information was taken off “taps” on the fibre optic cable that carry much of the Internet’s traffic.

The documents that have come to light regarding the interception of images off webcams brings up not only questions of the violation of civil rights, but who has been watching private citizens in their own homes and what will be done with the resulting evidence.

By Sara Watson

NY Times
The Economist
The New Yorker

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