Latest Edward Snowden revelation is that Yahoo webcam videos have been scooped up.
program codenamed Optic Nerve gathered millions of stills
Whenever British journalist Luke Harding, working on his new book about spying whistle-blower Edward Snowden, wrote something disparaging about the NSA, a weird thing would happen.
“The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish,” Harding wrote in the Guardian this week.
The deletes kept happening for weeks. “All authors expect criticism,” wrote Harding, author of the new and astounding The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man. “But criticism before publication by an anonymous, divine third party is something novel.”
Finally, Harding politely asked whoever was doing it to consider stopping. A month later, they finally did.
He has no idea who did this. Were they American or British, a hacker or an offended National Security Agency analyst? We know they were reading Harding’s words as they were written but were they also watching him via a Skype-like device?
The news that GCHQ— the British surveillance agency that teams with the NSA and spy agencies in other allied “Five Eyes” nations, including Canada — has been intercepting and storing Yahoo webcam chats globally is eerie. We knew they could read what you typed, we suspect they can do this in real time, but now the massive Snowden leaked papers reveal that they can watch you talking to your nearest and dearest. Worse, you may have been naked at the time.
A program codenamed Optic Nerve gathered millions of stills from webcam chats between 2008 and 2010 and sent them in for viewing. In one six-month period alone, Optic Nerve scooped up images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo accounts around the world, the Guardian has reported.
Yahoo says it knew nothing of this.
In effect, people’s computer screens have become devices from Nineteen Eighty-Four where humans watch a screen that watches them back. But at least Winston Smith knew he was being watched.
You may say that people who film nude webcam videos — between 3 per cent and 11 per cent of users — are asking for trouble, but the problem is that Optic Nerve uses facial recognition (as does Facebook to tag you in unlabelled photos), which means it gathers human flesh, whether it’s facial or not. If there’s a group of faces, automated porn detectors assume it’s porn.
Even if they were innocuous, your private videos were part of these giant scoops of data. If you were without clothing and are still fine with governments seeing your homemade porn, just remember that it’s life-destroying if it gets out and blackmail material if it doesn’t.
Even if you’re a law-abiding innocent, if you suddenly become of interest to global spy services, they’re watching every move you make and every breath you take.
Governments, including Canada’s, do not want citizens to know that their lives are no longer their own, that the NSA grabs 35 million books’ worth of data a minute, as the journalist Daniel Soar has calculated. They worry that citizens might angrily object and cease to be obedient.
Think about privacy in the deepest way possible.
The best analogy I can come up with for this level of intrusion came with this week’s sentencing of Dr. George Doodnaught, the Toronto anesthesiologist who sexually assaulted female patients during operations. I hadn’t quite grasped the simultaneity of what Doodnaught did because the true weirdness of it hadn’t occurred to me.
He was inserting his penis into paralyzed women’s slack mouths while their bellies were being sliced open. It wasn’t one massive intrusion into their bodies, it was two, at the same time. And it was being done as the women were semi-conscious, aware but unable to call out. They were naked in a room where they had given highly trained technicians their complete trust.
We are as helpless as those patients were, semi-conscious of the surveillance Snowden has described, enraged but paralyzed. We are T.S. Eliot’s “patient etherised upon a table.”
It’s not just that the government can lock onto our cellphones at airports, it’s that they can then also track us retroactively. It’s not just that they can read our prose online, it’s that they can watch it being written. It’s not just that we can’t see what they’re doing to us, it’s that they can see what we’re doing alone in a room, naked and vulnerable.
Our living conditions are intolerable.