Interception and storing of communications and data of terrorists and hard core criminals is a common practice around the world. However, interception and storing of innocent Internet surfers is something that is very hard to justify. It is still a mystery why intelligence and security agencies around the world pay so much attention to illegal and unconstitutional e-surveillance and eavesdropping activities and projects.
It has been reported that 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 any wrongdoing. This goes against the stand of UK’s and US’s intelligence agencies that they conduct e-surveillance against criminals and terrorists alone.
In one six-month period in 2008 alone, GCHQ collected webcam imagery, including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications, from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally. Yahoo reacted furiously to the webcam interception when approached by the Guardian and it denied any prior knowledge of the program, accusing the agencies of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”.
Rather than collecting webcam chats in their entirety, the e-surveillance program saved one image every five minutes from the users’ feeds, partly to comply with human rights legislation, and also to avoid overloading GCHQ’s servers. The documents describe these users as “unselected”, intelligence agency parlance for bulk rather than targeted collection.
GCHQ did make efforts to limit analysts’ ability to see webcam images, restricting bulk searches to metadata only. However, analysts were shown the faces of people with similar usernames to surveillance targets, potentially dragging in large numbers of innocent people. One document tells agency staff they were allowed to display “webcam images associated with similar Yahoo identifiers to your known target”.
Microsoft, the maker of Xbox, faced a privacy backlash last year when details emerged that the camera bundled with its new console, the Xbox One, would be always-on by default. It seems users have to be more cautious with their webcams as episodes like these are not rare to find these days.