The revelations continue to come out from the documents Edward Snowden leaked to the Guardian. My former AINN colleague Spencer Ackerman, now the national security editor for that paper, told NPR about documents that show the NSA and the British intelligence agencies have eavesdropped on millions of webcam chats:
BLOCK: This is a program that was called Optic Nerve. Why don’t you describe what was collected?
ACKERMAN: Sure. So Optic Nerve was a program to collect specifically imagery and associated metadata from Yahoo! webcam chats. This was collected in bulk from GCHQ, the British Intelligence Service, the British surveillances services, a broad sweep along with NSA of vast amounts of data taken in transit across the Internet. And when facial recognition software from Optic Nerve was applied to all of this webcam data, the idea was supposed to be that intelligence analysts could potentially get the images of people that they might have as intelligence targets.
BLOCK: And what timeframe are we talking about? Any idea how many images were collected?
ACKERMAN: Well, in one particular six month timeframe in 2008, the imagery of 1.5 million Yahoo! users was collected. That’s not necessarily the same as 1.5 million people because it’s possible that one person could have multiple Yahoo! user IDs, but chances are it’s in a similar ballpark.
BLOCK: Why just Yahoo!?
ACKERMAN: According to GCHQ documents that we have, intelligence targets of the GCHQ were frequent Yahoo! webcam users. Additionally, during the mid 2000s, around the time that it seems this program was developed, that was the number on online video chat that was being used. So they seemed to have gone after bulk Yahoo! webcam information because of that…
BLOCK: You know, there’s an interesting part of your story in these documents that you reveal where the British surveillance agency is saying a surprising number of users used the Yahoo! webcam chat to show intimate parts of their body and they were unable to censor those out. They were warning the people in the agency that they might be finding material that was offensive to them.
ACKERMAN: That’s right. It remains one of the more bureaucratic descriptions of salacious material that I’ve ever encountered. It’s not exactly bodice-ripper type of stuff. It is, however, worth noting that GCHQ, according to these documents, viewed the collection of pornography or other sexually explicit images as a problem for their collection because, in theory, it distracts people for reasons that perhaps we’ll let go unsaid, from finding their actual intelligence targets or developing a more fulsome picture of them.
It’s incredible to me that most Americans aren’t more outraged by this. They spied on a staggering number of people doing webcam chats. Even if they got information using facial recognition software that allowed them to spy on a tiny number of people planning to do bad things, it still isn’t remotely constitutional. I have no doubt that if we let the government put cameras in everyone’s houses, they would catch a lot more criminals breaking the law than they do now. But they can’t do that because the constitution clearly forbids it. Well it clearly forbids this too, for crying out loud.