Webcams, mugshots and boobs: recent revelations on GCHQ spying and why I think we should consider a “flash”mob

Underground editorial choices

So, this week the latest revelation based on documents leaked to the Guardian by Edward Snowden made the front page in the UK’s free morning newspaper, the Metro.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Metro: “The Metro brand was launched in March 1999, as a London only free newspaper.”
Originally, “designed as a concise read for urbanites on the commute, filled with bite-sized news and local information for them to consume whilst on the move”, “1.4 million copies” are now available “across 50 UK urban centres every weekday morning.”

Those are their words. I would describe it as a free morning paper, published on weekdays and available for download or as hardcopies at most Tube (i.e Underground), Railway and I suppose miscellaneous stations. Which probably isn’t far off the mark.

Personally, I use it mostly to get a first impression, whilst commuting to work, of what’s going on out there is Big Bad World to then follow it all up on my more preferred news outlets.

Thus being a more or less regular Metro “reader”, I have over the past months often been dismayed at the sheer lack of NSA/Snowden reporting by members of the Metro group – revelations and issues that made headline news with other agencies didn’t necessarily seem to be considered of front page importance by Metro editors.

Correct me if I’m wrong but the last time I actively remember seeing any part of the Snowden story take centre stage was last June when the paper ran the story of Mr Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills who was quoted as feeling “lost at sea without a compass”.

So why this week all of a sudden? Why, after months of either silence or tiny columns in double-digit page corners, did the most recent story make the front page?

I cannot be the only one who finds it curious (taking into full consideration the prominence of the Lindsay Mills story) that of all the revelations the one that GCHQ stored webcam images of people in the nude (or worse) finally shook the Metro out of its NSA/GCHQ reporting apathy.

It seems to be a telling comment on editorial choice that the stories selected for the front page all contain an element of shall we say salaciousness: abandoned lovers, nudity, masturbation… talk about how sex sells! In a free paper, no less.

Now then, what is this story that has people so worked up that three USA senators – Wyden, Udall and Heinrich, the usual suspects – are planning an investigation into possible NSA involvement in this particular manifestation of spying?

Hitting a Nerve: spying on naked people via webcam

Well, it’s this story, published by the Guardian on Friday, which reports that “Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ, with aid from the US National Security Agency, intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing”.

The neat little programme that allows them to do this is called Optic Nerve. It began in 2008 and was apparently still active in 2012. Basically what it does is collect stills from Yahoo webcam chats – one still photograph every five minutes.

Much like metadata, these images are collected in bulk with no differentiation between people who are surveillance targets and people who aren’t. In the past, this has meant collecting images from up to 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally over a period of six months.

Okay, you might say, 1.8 million out of over 7 billion people in the world… one still every five minutes… does not sound like that much, what is all the fuss about?

Look at it this way: one of GCHQ’s internal documents on the programme apparently “likened its “bulk access to Yahoo webcam images/events” to a massive digital police mugbook.”

Well, a database of mugshots – trouble is, mugshots of people who aren’t actually suspected of any wrongdoing. How would you feel if someone dragged you to a police station, took and stored several mugshots of you and filed them away for future use, even though you hadn’t actually done anything wrong? Simply because you happened to be in a certain place at a certain time.

In this case, place and time are on your webcam on Yahoo! Chat and the mugshot is taken over the internet and without your knowledge but I would argue that that’s not only the same difference, it is worse, actually.

Not knowing that your images are being accessed by a third party that shouldn’t be privy to your conversation and then stored, you have no means of contesting what is being done. You cannot, actually, protest this invasion of your privacy or the fact that you are being treated like an arrested individual without having been arrested or without having done anything to warrant arrest.

Except perhaps stupidly taking your clothes off in front of your webcam. That is another matter. Personally, I don’t trust a camera that is connected to the internet as far as I can throw it. Right now my webcam is glaring at me from above my laptop screen and it’s giving me the heebie jeebies. I am certainly not taking my clothes off anywhere near it.

Consider that “Microsoft, the maker of Xbox, faced a privacy backlash last year when details emerged that the camera bundled with its new console, the Xbox One, would be always-on by default”. Eek. Big Brother is watching and all that.

Don’t deceive yourself either that it is only Yahoo or Microsoft Whose webcams are considered useful.

Anyway, whether or not people who strip or pleasure themselves in front of their webcam had it coming (yes, the choice of words is deliberate) or not is hardly the point.

The point is that what these people do in front of their webcam in a private chat should be up to them, as long as they do not break any  laws. Yet under Optic Nerve operations “analysts were shown the faces of people with similar usernames to surveillance targets, potentially dragging in large numbers of innocent people.”

So you could be showing GCHQ analysts delicate parts of your body simply because you picked an unfortunate username and happen to be using the same chat as some surveillance targets.

It gets worse. Under UK law “[u]nlike the NSA, GCHQ is not required […] to “minimize”, or remove, domestic citizens’ information from its databases.” Yes, analysts may need “additional legal authorisations […] before [they] can search for the data of individuals likely to be in the British Isles at the time of the search.” However, “[t]here are no such legal safeguards for searches on people believed to be in the US or the other allied “Five Eyes” nations – Australia, New Zealand and Canada.”

So there. Don’t masturbate or strip naked in front of your webcam while abroad, is all I’m saying. “The Spy Who Loved Me” or you, as the Metro so quaintly titled, could be looking at images of what you are doing to your private parts right now.

I am not saying that all spooks would want to do that – I can imagine this could actually be quite traumatic in certain cases – but the possibility is there and that, in itself, cannot be right.

And if you insist that people who show their boobies to other people on webcam deserve to be punished for being morons, then take into consideration that bulk collection of online video content also hoovers up things like family home movies.

Again, it is debatable whether or not parents should be putting home movies of their children on the internet but – once again – this isn’t exactly the point. The point is that people should be able to choose to do that without being in danger of getting sucked into a GCHQ or NSA dragnet.

Say senators Udall, Wyden and Heinrich: “A very large number of individuals – including law-abiding Americans – may have had private videos of themselves and their families intercepted and stored without any suspicion of wrongdoing. If this report is accurate it would show a breathtaking lack of respect for the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens.

So, why are they doing this, you wonder? Biometric detection, apparently, both “for target recognition [and] general security”, that is using “facial recognition technology to identify intelligence targets, particularly those using multiple anonymous internet IDs”.

In short, catching the “bad guys” – as usual at the expense of the privacy of a vast majority of good guys who were never asked if they were okay with becoming the stars of a dragnet collected porno.

Get our own satellite? Yes, let’s!

What does GCHQ have to say for itself?

The usual: no comment.

“It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position.”

Ah well, that’s all right then. Errr… no. Here is why:

“The Optic Nerve documentation shows legalities were being considered as new capabilities were being developed. Discussing adding automated facial matching, for example, analysts agreed to test a system before firming up its legal status for everyday use.”

What this seems to mean is that for research purposes, the programme is used without a firm legal framework in place. Only when it becomes operational is the legality of it properly considered.

Also, can I just remind everyone that “in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework” and “rigorous oversight” mean something different in spy parlance than they do to the rest of us?

No wonder that the above-mentioned senators Wyden, Udall and Heinrich “were “extremely troubled” by Optic Nerve and planned to investigate it”.

Funny thing is, Optic Nerve is just as troubling as many of the other programmes that have been revealed over the past months, yet it is only now that some of the media seem to finally catch on to that fact.

I would argue that it is heartening to see previously rather unfazed members of the media taking an interest. Except I won’t. That’s because I am suspicious of the reasons for this interest.

People didn’t seem that troubled as long as it was just something as abstract as metadata being hoovered up and stored. Now that people’s private parts are involved, however, that seems to be a different matter. I have my doubts that the interest this generates is directed anyone’s rights being infringed. Rather it seems that what’s going on here is a bit of surveillance-porn. Finally there is actually something to see! At last someone is taking their clothes off!  

I cannot say that I am surprised. In a society that is obsessed with celebrities’ naked anythings, the reaction is somewhat predictable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worrying. It doesn’t mean that the revelations aren’t dismaying either.

Yet if it takes nudity on webcams for people to take an interest then I wonder what kind of revelation is needed to actually make them realize that interest isn’t enough. That it needs to be followed up with action.

The question is what kind of action to take. Voting the current government out could be an idea. But Germany has just failed to do that and in the UK another election isn’t due until next year.

Perhaps the answer is, as Marina Hyde suggests, to buy our own satellite and point it at GCHQ.

Obviously not until we have “raise[d] the cash and f[ou]nd the lawyers” but in the meantime, I suggest we all opt for a more easily executable of Hyde’s suggestions:

“[Re]-read the Optic Nerve passage that frets about the sensitivity of spies exposed to explicit material, as opposed to that of the innocents being unwittingly monitored in this way.”

I believe that this is the passage she refers to:


Now spare a thought for the poor spy who has to look at someone “masturbating into chopped liver or apple pie”.

Then spare a thought for everyone who values “their right to onanistic anonymity” specifically or their right to privacy more generally, the people who unwittingly appear in a database of GCHQ mugshots without having done anything wrong. Consider that this might be you. Now go away and have a proper think about it. Preferably not in front of your webcam.

Or hang on, perhaps you should. Perhaps we should start a webcam flashmob, taking the flashing bit in the mob quite literally, and traumatize the poor dears at GCHQ even further – except I am not sure that would be legal and as far as the law is concerned, while the spooks may be able to find a way around it, I am not sure that we can.

At least they already have our mugshorts stored. Should save everybody a bit of hassle. All hail Optic Nerve.

2 thoughts on “Webcams, mugshots and boobs: recent revelations on GCHQ spying and why I think we should consider a “flash”mob

  1. Pingback: Tony Yustein's Thoughts | Webcams, mugshots and boobs: recent revelations on GCHQ spying and why I think we should consider a “flash”mob

  2. Pingback: “I swear under penalty of perjury that this is true” – Edward Snowden’s testimony to Members of the European Parliament | Notes from Self

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