British intelligence service GCHQ undertook a massive operation of intercepting and storing webcam images from millions of web users, many of which were not suspected of committing illegal activities, a Guardian report claims.
It is alleged that the GCHQ, with the aid of its American counterpart (US National Security Agency), intercepted webcam images of over 1.8 million Yahoo webcam chat users worldwide in one six-month period alone.
The revelation was made by the latest sets of leaks made by whistleblower Edward Snowden, who suggested that the prototype of the program that allowed the spying, dubbed Optic Nerve, was built in 2008 and was in place as recently as 2012.
The Guardian described the tactic deployed by GCHQ as “eerily reminiscent of the telescreens evoked in George Orwell’s 1984”.
What may worry many people more than the extensive surveillance of Yahoo’s webcam chat, which the company themselves describe as “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”, is that it seems that Xbox 360’s Kinect system was also considered for surveillance using Optic Nerve.
It is believed that one of the internal GCHQ documents highlighted Xbox 360’s Kinect camera as a product of interest, due to the possibilities and capabilities to use the technology in the camera to see into one’s home.
Specifically the report by the Guardian claims that the GCHQ saw the Kinect as receiving “fairly normal webcam traffic” and “was being evaluated as part of a wider program.”
This does not represent a case of precedent setting by the GCHQ however, as it has been revealed previously that the US’ NSA were exploring the capabilities of games console for surveillance of possible suspects.
Of course if their efforts went further than just considering tapping into the cameras on games console it would merely be adding images to something they were already monitoring, as it was revealed last year that both the GCHQ and the NSA listened in to Xbox Live chat.
Obviously the news that intelligence services were eyeing up their hardware have reached Microsoft pretty quickly, who have responded with an air of shock and surprise.
A Microsoft representative told Eurogamer that the company had “never heard of this program [Optic Nerve]”.
The Microsoft representative went on to say:
“We’re concerned about any reports of governments surreptitiously collecting private customer data. That’s why in December we initiated a broad effort to expand encryption across our services and are advocating for legal reforms.”
This broad effort to expand encryption came following the aforementioned revelation that Xbox Live chat had been intercepted by the GCHQ and the NSA.
It was the news of chilling surveillance on non-suspects that led to large tech companies, such as Microsoft and Google, creating and signing a document titled ‘Global Government Surveillance Reform‘ – which outlined their concerns of Government perusing internet usage.
In response to the document GCHQ told the Guardian that they were acting within the boundaries of UK law and that their actions are “necessary” and “proportionate”.
It really does seem that this sort of behaviour is impossible to escape if you are a big user of technology and are fully plugged into ‘the internet of things’, as it should not be forgotten that it is not just Governments watching us as we browse, companies such as Facebook and Google have played a shady game of ‘let’s collect data’ in the past.
Essentially this is a question of morality and trust between the public, their governments and the big companies whose products now invade every aspect of life.
It is this fact that makes this matter so disconcerting, as someone that is fully in bed with services that could be monitored by intelligence services I know that I would not, probably even could not, stop using services if I knew that my privacy had been imposed upon.
I know there will be many out there that take a different stance to me and would easily shed their technological marriages is they knew their liberty could be compromised, but on the whole it is a worrying thought that as technology becomes a greater and more ‘essential’ part of our daily life the services that many rely upon to communicate and work with one another are becoming less trustworthy.
I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this matter, is Government surveillance something that concerns you at all? If it does bother you would you concerns be significant enough for you to say ‘Xbox off’ and turn your back on that shiny Xbox One you’ve just placed as the pride of your living room?