The Guardian has released documents implicating the British-run GCHQ in yet another in a long line of spying scandals, revealing a program which vastly oversteps the bounds of normal human privacy rights and basic decency all in one stride.
If you used the Yahoo Chat service to speak to or video call a friend or a loved one in the past couple years, chances are images of your conversation are stored somewhere on a server in the UK without you even knowing it.
A program codenamed Optic Nerve was first designed and implemented by the GCHQ in 2008 to covertly record the webcam chats of innocent individuals en masse, and was supposedly still active until somewhere around mid-2012.
Agents could easily login to and spy on active webcam chats without either party noticing a delay on their end, and the program was able to avoid detection by only taking a still image of a correspondence every five minutes. This was partly to comply with human rights policy, and also to avoid overloading the already overworked servers stored at the GCHQ.
Also revealed by the leaks are the issues the agency went through, while trying to prevent its own agents from accessing the database of images freely without a warrant tied to the people they were attempting to “investigate”.
It may be argued that there are legitimate threats to be intercepted by monitoring webcams. They are an effective method for two suspected parties to communicate which doesn’t rely on classical methods of connecting such as landlines or cell phones, but this latest revelation doesn’t hold much water in that regard.
Firstly, it looks as though no actual sounds were recorded from the webcam chats, so the claim they were trying to “gather important data” is already on shaky ground.
Second, the documents and presentations clearly show the agency’s internal struggle to prevent their own employees from brazenly abusing the system and using the database to assert some sick personal dominance over the people who were being spied on.
“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.”
And last but not least, there isn’t a single instance in the entire history of the program the GCHQ can point to that speaks to the need for the program or its overall efficacy in identifying and preventing terror plots.
What we have instead is just another of George Orwell’s visions, eerily reminiscent of the “telescreen” concept first proposed in his less-sci-fi-by-the-day novel 1984.
When Yahoo was approached for comment by The Guardian, they claimed to have no knowledge of the operation and were “outraged” that it had been going on for so long without any of their engineers becoming the wiser.
“We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity,” said a spokeswoman. “This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable, and we strongly call on the world’s governments to reform surveillance law consistent with the principles we outlined in December.”