The NSA may not be listening to your private phone calls, but it has been watching your private parts
Summary: The U.K. and U.S. government's ability to tap into webcams — and directly into your living rooms and offices — shows the biggest and most blatant lack of respect for people's privacy by Western governments in living memory.
In light of the latest global surveillance leaks on Thursday by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden, scanners at U.S. airports that catalog you in full birthday-suit glory seem somewhat tame.
The latest details published in The Guardian reveal one the most egregious privacy invasions committed by a democratic power, ensnaring millions of Yahoo Messenger users through the watchful eye of their own governments.
Between 2008 and 2010, Britain's GCHQ, in cooperation with the U.S. National Security Agency, ran the "Optic Nerve" program which covertly intercepted and collected webcam imagery from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally. According to comScore data, Yahoo Messenger had 4.3 million unique users in January 2014. The agencies were running the program for automatic facial recognition experiments, to monitor existing suspects and to "discover new targets of interest" for the intelligence organizations.
Images were taken as often as once every five minutes, a limit issued to avoid overloading GCHQ systems, as well as to "partly comply" with human rights legislation.
As much as between 3 percent and 11 percent of the snapped imagery was considered "explicit."
The images collected included vast amounts of U.S. and U.K. citizen data, but unlike in the U.S., U.K. authorities are not legally obliged to "minimize" any domestic data it receives. But, they do have to seek additional warrants to search the data.
Yahoo "strongly condemned" and denied any complicity in the program, calling it a "whole new level of violation of our users' privacy," according to the publication.
It remains unclear from the documents exactly how much access the NSA has to the Yahoo webcam database itself, or how Yahoo-connected webcams were exploited.
Obama refused to apologize for the too-free hand of the agency in spying on both the general public and international allies, and instead claimed that the NSA was, "not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails."
Meanwhile, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who oversees GCHQ's activities,said in June 2013 "law-abiding" citizens have "nothing to fear" from the British intelligence services.
Huh? The agency may not be listening to your private phone calls, but they are cataloging your private parts.
Unless there is some link between "terrorist" activities and the rate of porn viewing online, as well as the number of criminals sitting in their birthday suits while talking on instant messenger, the speeches by U.S. and U.K. leaders now ring even emptier than before. The latest revelations show that ordinary citizens are being targeted, purely because they like the convenience of talking to each other through the Web. Whether the NSA is fully responsible for this program or simply provided assistance, makes no difference.
While such blatant disrespect and wholesale abuse of power can remind us of surveillance cases many U.S. and U.K. citizens abhor — not limited to the Great Firewall of China and the ongoing limited Internet freedoms in Russia — there is another example closer to home that includes activities which stink in the same way the NSA and GCHQ now does.
Does Hunter Moore ring any bells?
Moore has been branded by many "the most hated man on the Internet" for running revenge porn website IsAnyoneUp.com, where intimate images of former partners were posted without consent by those seeking revenge. Not only were images posted, but also names, locations and links to social media accounts were often included.
"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience." — President Obama, June 2013
While some images were submitted by users, Moore was later arrested and charged with the theft of images from hacked email accounts; and a 15-count federal indictment accused him of conspiracy, computer hacking, aggravated identity theft, and aiding and abetting.
The punishment? Up to five years in federal prison.
If Moore is the most hated man on the Internet, perhaps we should consider the U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies in the same, albeit ironic, light.
After all, as GCHQ "does not have the technical means to make sure no images of U.K. or U.S. citizens are collected and stored by the system," the governmental body probably has a pornographic treasure trove far beyond Moore's wildest dreams.
While speaking to reporters at Silicon Valley, Obama called NSA surveillance a "modest encroachment" on privacy, saying: "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience... There are trade-offs involved."
However, there is nothing "modest" about the latest NSA and GCHQ revelations. Instead, the Optic Nerve document leak suggests the NSA, in cahoots with its British counterpart, has danced gleefully on the pyre of privacy, exulting in the burning cinders and ash of what remained of our belief in individual respect and dignity.
In fact, just shy of a year ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wasdenied permission to surreptitiously snoop on an alleged hacker through his webcam by a federal magistrate judge. The order was declined based on grounds that it was too broad and overly invasive. Crucially, the judge said the FBI had failed to meet the Fourth Amendment's requirements for the target's computer, and the order was denied.
But the NSA's favorite secretive and shadowy Washington D.C.-based Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would have, and clearly must have reached a different conclusion. If not, the NSA's actions likely would have violated the constitution almost certainly.
There is a saying in Britain — "An Englishman's home is his castle." Whether people choose to watch porn, exchange dirty talk over Yahoo or do the hula naked in front of a webcam with a bottle of tequila, should be beyond the scope and care of government employees — which, let's remind ourselves that their sole purpose is to protect us, bolster the economy, and keep order in return for authority and a salary. Instead, the U.S. and U.K. authorities have become the poster children for those drunk on power, revealing a complete and blatant disregard for the general public as well as overseas allies, just because they "can."
Is it really in the public interest for money and time to be spent on programs which involve an uncomfortable Human Resources department and governmental employees cataloging the faces and genitalia of Internet chat users, rather than, say, using those resources to fund more appropriate programs — actually designed to protect the public — or create jobs and opportunities within the society such agencies are meant to keep ticking over?
President Obama said in his address: "We're going to have to make some choices as a society."
Perhaps he's right. Perhaps we should choose to rein in those who believe they are above decency; above duping those who vote for and place their trust in them; above adhering to what we consider in the West to be basic respect — all in the name of the fight against the terrorism buzzword.
However, lines must be drawn. We might like to be politically correct in the West and dance around delicate and potentially explosive diplomatic issues, but perhaps we now need blunt, strong language instead.It's not to say that surveillance and intelligence isn't required to protect a country and keep citizens safe. It is, just as Obama said, a matter of trade-offs and balance.
This kind of widespread, mortifying surveillance by members of the public on the public needs to stop, and stop now — this is not a "trade-off" — this is outright abuse of power and technology to leach away at the rights and privacy of the general public both in the U.S. and across the pond. Those in power, in places we have granted them, should apologize — and not just because of this latest leak or the catalog of naughty bits anatomists would give a right arm for, but for the continual, secret erosion of things that are important in life. Namely, dignity and respect.
If not, I guess we should welcome George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" with open arms. Hello, Big Brother.
Or, some people would add, "in Google bind them." But that's not true:Android is much too open for Google to lock vendors in. Amazon proved that with its Kindle line, and now Microsoft's smartphone company, Nokia, wants to show that Android will work well with Microsoft services too.
Yes, Microsoft is supporting Linux by way of Android. Do you really think -- with the clock running down on Microsoft's final acquisition of Nokia -- that the Finnish phone company would make such a move without Microsoft's full backing? I don't.
I think Microsoft and Nokia have made a smart move. I'm not the only one.
Ed Bott, a Windows pro's pro and no friend to open-source operating systems, also sees Microsoft sticking with Nokia's new Android phones. As Bott has pointed out before, Microsoft is turning into a services and hardware company instead of the operating system and application giant we've known for decades.
That being the case, Bott argues, "Microsoft’s arch-rival in the mobile market is Google, not Android.Microsoft’s services – Office 365 and Outlook.com, OneDrive cloud storage for consumers and businesses, communications via Lync and Skype, among many others – work on multiple platforms. They compete on most of those platforms with Google services, like Gmail and Google Apps and Google Drive and Google+ Hangouts."
He's perfectly correct—Yes Ed Bott and Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols are in complete agreement for once and hell hasn't even frozen over!
Bott, unlike Foley, also can see Microsoft/Nokia moving its Android smartphones to the high end. I agree. Microsoft would love it if by next year's Mobile World Congress, the hot talk was whether Samsung's Galaxy S6 or the Nokia XP was the best phone of the show. But, what Microsoft would love even more is if users were running Outlook, Office 365, and OneDrive instead of Gmail, Google Apps, and Google Drive on their devices --regardless of the specific platform.
James Kendrick, ZDNet's moble device expert, disagrees with us. He can't see "Microsoft having Android products under its roof. Having to support another platform in addition to its own is going to be a tremendous effort, and while Microsoft has the resources to do it I can't see it. It just doesn't feel right to me and I think there are quite a few Microsofties who will feel the same."
I see eye to eye with Kendrick that there are many Microsoft developers that will Hate the Android move. If Ballmer were still in charge, I'd worry that the Windows Phone faction get their way. Ballmer's not. Satya Nadella is the man now, and what does he know best? He knows the cloud. And, what do Microsoft's services run on? Yes, that's right. They run on the Microsoft cloud.
The heavy lifting for Nokia's apps has already been done over on Azure-based cloud. Google's done the hard work of creating the base operating system. In terms of developer man-hours, Nokia-Android isn't going to cost Microsoft that much. And, come to think of it, Microsoft won't have to pay itself those patent royalty-fees!
As for the app front-end, that work will be done by the tens of thousands of Android programmers who are already out there. Sure, Microsoft's internal developers may not be up to speed on Android, but all those third-party mobile programmers know Android like the back of their smartphones.
The real question is whether Android independent software vendors (ISV)s will think it's worth their time. I think that they will.
Within Microsoft what I see happening is that the company will start backing off Windows Phone. Kendrick's right, you see. It is too much to ask Microsoft to support two mobile operating systems, so I think they'll slowly and quietly drop the least-profitable of them: Windows Phone.
I still can't see Microsoft producing MS-Linux—although I wouldn't count it out either—but I can see Microsoft retiring Windows Phone. Supporting Android with their own app suite simply makes too much financial sense to do otherwise.
For net neutrality to gain traction as a popular cause, it needs Netflix (NFLX). Yes, the infrastructure of the Internet is important, but few people will find it interesting without a clear connection to the new season of House of Cards. So Netflix’s acknowledgment over the weekend that it had reached an agreement with Comcast to make its service run smoother for the cable company’s customers has led to a mini-outcry over the health of the open Internet.
The twist is that Netflix and Comcast’s (CMCSA) arrangement isn’t a net neutrality issue in the technical sense of the term. A proper net neutrality discussion would involve Internet providers playing favorites with the traffic on their networks reaching end users, and analysts quicklypointed out that this deal has none of that. But when a company that drives one-third of U.S. Web traffic teams up with a company that could soon control access to 60 percent of broadband subscribers, it’s worth parsing.
Netflix’s slow speeds on Comcast have been an issue for a while. The video service releases regular reports about the streaming performance of various Internet providers, and Comcast’s quality dropped significantly in the past year. By December 2013, Netflix cited the country’s largest broadband company for offering the fourth-slowest service in a ranking of 17 providers.
Netflix has several strategies to fix this kind of predicament. In this case it wanted to connect directly to Comcast’s pipes instead of sending its traffic through other companies that struggled to handle the traffic. The sticking point, according to media reports, was that Comcast wanted to be paid for this privilege. Last week an analyst noticed that Netflix was sending traffic directly to Comcast, indicating that an arrangement had been reached, and the companies confirmed it on Sunday.
The announcement comes at an interesting time. Last month a federal court overturned the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, which limited Internet service providers’ ability to give preferential treatment among types of Web traffic by putting up for bid speedier access to users. Critics of the decision immediately began predicting peril for Netflix, which is responsible for about a third of U.S. Internet traffic at any given time. Shortly thereafter, in a development with significant but uncertain ramifications for the net neutrality debate, Comcast announced it was buying its largest competitor, Time Warner Cable (TWC), for $45 billion, which could give it at least a 60 percent share of the national broadband market.
The talks with Netflix were already under way before the court decision or the merger; multiple reports trace the framework for the Netflix-Comcast deal back to the International Consumer Electronics Show in early January. Still, by coming to an agreement with Netflix, Comcast neutralizes a company that might have been a potent voice in blocking its acquisition of Time Warner Cable. “That was one of the side benefits, or silver linings, of this announcement,” says Paul Sweeney of Bloomberg Industries.
This looks like a worrying development, because Netflix is reportedly now paying Comcast directly for access to its customers—the much-feared vision of what life might be like without net neutrality rules. Then again, Netflix was already paying companies to carry traffic between its servers and Comcast’s customers. Details are murky, but this deal may have actually lowered Netflix’s costs by cutting out the middle man. It’s unlikely that it would have raised hackles at the FCC even before last month’s decision.
The real issue is who has power at the negotiating table. Having multiple third parties move traffic from companies like Netflix to those like Comcast reduces the chances for abuse because there is always another route. That’s different than content companies striking deals with service providers directly, especially one with as many customers as Comcast. If you run Netflix, can you afford not to agree to terms with the gatekeeper providing well more than half of the Internet subscribers in the country?
The most vulnerable companies here aren’t the likes of Netflix, which is big enough to force Comcast to the table. If nothing else, Comcast couldn’t afford to anger regulators with a fight against such a household name right now. But smaller companies will have much less leverage and could get worse terms. Dan Rayburn, an analyst for market researcher Frost & Sullivan, says this is no different than bulk deals that any large customer enjoys. “It’s a volume-based business with economics of scale,” he says. “The more eyeballs you push, the better deal you’re going to get.”
Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on your perspective.
Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.