Big Brother Has Been Watching You on Your Webcam

Take a roll of electrical tape. Cut out a little square. Place it over the webcam on your computer. Right now.

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, secret documents reveal.

GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.

In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery – including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.

This is another Snowden disclosure, which tells us a couple of things. Namely, that because Snowden is holed up in Russia, the Russians already knew about this, and they have probably used Snowden's files to replicate it -- if they weren't already doing something similar themselves. With no Snowden counterpart in Russia to blow the whistle on Putin, we'll never know. The actual Snowden ran from one surveillance state to a worse surveillance state.

This particular photo gathering was going on via Yahoo chat, but there's no reason to believe that it's limited to Yahoo chat or that there isn't another program out there that targets other chat programs. There's no reason to believe that intel isn't tapping Skype and other feeds, maybe even Facetime. Hackers have already been caught tapping into webcams that weren't even being used.

Anyway, I suppose it's some level of justice that the spies had to pay a price for their surveillance.

Sexually explicit webcam material proved to be a particular problem for GCHQ, as one document delicately put it: "Unfortunately … it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person."


The document estimates that between 3% and 11% of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested by GCHQ contains "undesirable nudity".

This was probably like a nude beach, full of things you'd rather not see, while the people you'd want to see naked are clothed, and elsewhere.

Update: This post needs a song.