UK spy agency tapped 1.8m Yahoo Web cams

During one six-month period alone, a UK spy agency called GCHQ recorded copies of the Web cam chats of 1.8 million Yahoo users from around the world, according to new documents released by former NSA employee Edward Snowden.

The program, called Optic Nerve, captured one still image every five minutes of people using their computer cameras to have video chats, sometimes explicit.

According to the Guardian, which broke the story, the 1.8 million people were not necessarily terrorist targets.

And keep in mind, this is only the information we have for one six-month period.  That means a lot more information on a lot more people has likely been captured since that time.

The data could then be accessed based on username, or using facial recognition software.  For example, if the agency were looking into a terror suspect, they could then search this database to see if they had any chat records on the person, using that person’s name as the basis of the search, or their face.

Of course, there are a few problems here.  First of which, one could also search this system for anyone and everyone they wanted to blackmail or destroy.  Got a political opponent who’s being difficult?  See if you can find a Web chat between him and his mistress.

There’s also the question of how well facial recognition is going to work on sexually-oriented Web chat.  The spy document notes that, “the best images are ones where the person is facing the camera with their face upright.”  Faces are not always available in such chats.

I find myself divided on these Snowden stories.  As with Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, I grow concerned when “whistleblowers” appear to be indiscriminately taking and releasing massive numbers of documents about anything and everything.

Snowden, for example, didn’t help his case by releasing information about US spying on Russia’s leaders, something we absolutely should be doing.

As for Manning, it’s difficult to believe that, before blowing the whistle, she perused 250,000 US diplomatic cables, and 500,000 Army reports, to see which ones qualified as true “whistleblowing,” while taking care to ensure that none of them unduly put American lives at risk.

In my view, that’s an absolute requirement of whistleblowing. The information had better be relevant, and you had better do an assessment of the cost-benefit involved.  I don’t think you can do that with nearly 1 million documents.  And while none of us were fans of the Iraq War, I don’t accept the notion that opposition to the war necessarily means it’s acceptable to leak every classified document about that war.

Having said that, intercepting and storing images of the Web chats of people who aren’t even suspects is creepy as hell.

This seems to be part of a larger spy agency strategy of copying every bit of data that’s out there on all of us, so that they can have it available should they ever need it.  Meaning, if you’re never a suspect, no one will (hopefully) ever look through the files they’ve got on you.  So, the agencies argue, they’re not “really” violating your privacy by simply keeping copies of everything.  (Though that’s not even true – what if your name is similar to another suspect’s, or your face looks similar to his? In those cases, someone will be violating your privacy.)


Minority Report is a movie about a police unit that uses psychics to find and arrest people who will commit crimes at some point in the future, but may not have any criminal intent at the moment.

But that’s still awfully creepy.

Do everyday citizens really want copies of every email they ever wrote archived just in case the government wants to come after them in the future? It’s almost a presumption of guilt before you commit any crime.  How about copies of every Web cam chat?  Copies of every text chat, and text message? How about a copy of every phone call or letter, or conversation they have with someone in person?  And what happens when hackers break into that treasure trove of data, or an angry former spouse subpoenas it in order to prove your infidelity?

While I suspect most of us are pretty honest people, I also suspect that you could probably create a pretty good case against anyone if you had a record of every communication they’ve ever had, and could sift through it at will at any point in the future.

Not to mention, even honest people have sex, and sometimes that sex happens online.  A point the GCHQ noted, with apparent surprise, in one of the Snowden documents:

“Unfortunately … it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person. Also, the fact that the Yahoo software allows more than one person to view a webcam stream without necessarily sending a reciprocal stream means that it appears sometimes to be used for broadcasting pornography.”

The Guardian reports that the spy document estimated that between 3% and 11% of the Yahoo Web cam images that were harvest contained “undesirable nudity.”  It’s unclear how much “desirable nudity” was among the images retained.

Even today, people have a basic expectation of privacy, based in part on the presumed-ephemeral nature of certain communications.  We don’t expect people to record our telephone or in-person conversations.  We still probably “believe” that our private messages on Facebook are not being stored somewhere, and won’t ever come back to haunt us. And even though we know people can go through archives of email lists were on, and try to piece together our “worst” emails in order to further some personal vendetta they have against us (as happened to me recently on a “liberal” email list I subscribe to, at the hands of one of the moderators), we don’t expect people to do so.

And while one person with a vendetta is kind of pathetic, a government with a vendetta is downright dangerous.

(I’m told that in order to better see my Facebook posts in your feed, you need to “follow” me.)

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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