I Always Feel Like

Somebody’s watching me:

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.

Yahoo reacted furiously to the webcam interception when approached by the Guardian. The company denied any prior knowledge of the program, accusing the agencies of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”.

This story is for everyone who has laughed at me the last decade or so because I always cover the camera on my laptops with tape.

92 replies
  1. 1
    Lee says:

    This story is for everyone who has laughed at me the last decade or so because I always cover the camera on my laptops with tape.

    I’m glad you qualified that statement because there are so many reasons to laugh :)

    /internet hug

  2. 2
    Calouste says:

    We can still laugh at you because it looks like GHCQ was only collecting images when the users were actively using their webcams.

  3. 3
    brettvk says:

    “I always cover the camera on my laptops with tape.”
    Me too. I found electrical tape worked best.

  4. 4
    Big R says:

    You know what this story doesn’t say? That GCHQ had the capability to turn on your webcam remotely and without the telltale light showing. So…why exactly were you covering your computer camera with tape?

    ETA: Dammit Calouste! One bloody minute too late.

  5. 5
    brettvk says:

    @Calouste: Well, I went for the electrical tape when I read somewhere about a program that could turn on your webcam remotely. Not that I’m important or even photogenic — I don’t want to have to dress up to surf.

  6. 6
    Baud says:

    FWIW, this is what the article says about the NSA’s involvement.

    Optic Nerve was based on collecting information from GCHQ’s huge network of internet cable taps, which was then processed and fed into systems provided by the NSA. Webcam information was fed into NSA’s XKeyscore search tool, and NSA research was used to build the tool which identified Yahoo’s webcam traffic.

    Unlike the NSA, GCHQ is not required by UK law to “minimize”, or remove, domestic citizens’ information from its databases.

    It is not fully clear from the documents how much access the NSA has to the Yahoo webcam trove itself, though all of the policy documents were available to NSA analysts through their routine information-sharing.

    This is just funny:

    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.

  7. 7
    Lavocat says:

    Same here, dude.

    Whatever the Kinks may think, paranoia will NOT destroy ya.

    It just might save yer ass.

  8. 8
    David in NY says:

    GHCQ was only collecting images when the users were actively using their webcams.

    Apparently true, but not essential. Remember the public school that gave all the kids laptops and then spied on them with the camera? That could be happening too.

  9. 9
    jl says:

    @Calouste:

    ” We can still laugh at you because it looks like GHCQ was only collecting images when the users were actively using their webcams. ”

    I thought Cole meant that he was playing kinky sexytime bondage games with his computer. He’s into weird computer gaming, right?

  10. 10
    JGabriel says:

    The Guardian:

    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.

    I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: the best, the most just and torturous, punishment would be to make the people who collected these communications watch/read/listen to every single one of them for the rest of their lives.

  11. 11
    Cervantes says:

    @Baud:

    Not really funny considering I can see what you’re wearing right now.

    Would you mind turning to your right a little?

  12. 12
    Belafon says:

    I couldn’t find where the NSA was actually helping.

  13. 13
    Baud says:

    @Belafon:

    It’s helping to generate page clicks for the Guardian.

  14. 14
    RSR says:

    @David in NY: I just referenced that school case, but I think my comment went to moderation purgatory.

    It was Lower Merion School District, just outside Philadelphia.

    Between that and the judge taking bribes to send kids to prison camps, we’re not exactly sterling examples here in the Commonwealth.

  15. 15
    Betty Cracker says:

    I’ve always covered my webcam lens with electrical tape too. I believe the FBI recently copped to the ability to spy on people via the webcam without the user activating it and without activating the indicator light?

    Anyone who monitored my activities would quickly perish of boredom, but still: I feel better having that little square piece of tape there.

  16. 16
    David in NY says:

    @RSR: Here’s a link to the Lower Merion case. Schools ultimately settled with two studens, of whom hundreds of pictures had been taken, for $610,000, including lots of attorney’s fees.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/su.....ia-webcam/

  17. 17
    pharniel says:

    @jl: That game hasn’t come out yet. But when it does you should totally buy it because Christine Love’s games are awesome.

    What?

    I mean…BEST TITLE EVER – My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress as Him and Now I Have to Deal with a Geeky Stalker and a Domme Beauty Who Want Me in a Bind!! (aka Ladykiller in a Bind)

    But yes I covered mine when the virus to turn it on came out.

  18. 18
    Baud says:

    @Cervantes:

    Would you mind turning to your right a little?

    Can’t. Don’t want urine on the floor.

  19. 19
    Keith G says:

    Today, information is like the nukes of a previous era. No bureaucrat wants to say “No” to getting more… just in case.

  20. 20
    Cervantes says:

    @Baud: Spoilsport.

  21. 21
  22. 22
  23. 23
    kc says:

    @Big R:

    You know what this story doesn’t say? That GCHQ had the capability to turn on your webcam remotely and without the telltale light showing. So…why exactly were you covering your computer camera with tape?

    Because they could turn it on remotely?

  24. 24
    Belafon says:

    @Baud: I guess that would be the help: The NSA provided the software.

  25. 25
    Ben Franklin says:

    @Baud:

    If you turn far enough right, you’re left again, so avoid the move at all costs. Your surveillance-state protectors ask that you just remain quiet and still.

  26. 26
    Cervantes says:

    @Belafon:

    I couldn’t find where the NSA was actually helping.

    No? Maybe here:

    Optic Nerve was based on collecting information from GCHQ’s huge network of internet cable taps, which was then processed and fed into systems provided by the NSA. Webcam information was fed into NSA’s XKeyscore search tool, and NSA research was used to build the tool which identified Yahoo’s webcam traffic.

  27. 27
    Baud says:

    @Ben Franklin:

    So does my cleaning lady!

  28. 28
    Cervantes says:

    @Ben Franklin: Catatonic, even.

  29. 29
    cathyx says:

    Here is what most don’t seem to get. It’s not about you per se, but about the fact that they can turn on webcams and record anything on a computer owned by someone who they may want to control and discredit, like politicians, law enforcement, or journalists. If they can do it to us, they can do it to anyone.

  30. 30
    Belafon says:

    @Cervantes: Yeah, but that doesn’t match the implication, to me at least, that the NSA was helping collect the data. The closest I could get was that they were using NSA supplied software to analyze the data.

  31. 31
    jl says:

    Does this spying system work on a person too cheap to buy a new computer until the old one without a webcam totally falls apart? Or somebody so butt lazy and afraid of hassles they will go several clicks out of the way to avoid installing the device drivers to anything they don’t absolutely need?

    I’m asking for a friend.

  32. 32
    Belafon says:

    All of this also makes me wonder just how much of our internet traffic is spying. Is it anywhere close to spam and Netflix?

  33. 33
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Cervantes:

    So selling a software tool is exactly the same thing as gathering and using the information yourself?

    If I were British, I’d be extremely pissed off at my government right now, but I’m still not seeing any evidence that this was done in the US by the US government to US citizens.

  34. 34
    catclub says:

    ” intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing”
    But how would they know until they had looked at the images to decide?

    Now, they can email those people and tell them ‘ur doing it rong’

  35. 35
    Ben Franklin says:

    @Baud:

    Is this the one? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gxcs3FNLAo

    Full compliance with the true authority make for a peaceful and neutered household.

  36. 36
    Ben Franklin says:

    @Cervantes:

    Self-induced coma.

  37. 37
    pamelabrown53 says:

    @Betty Cracker: Betty, my heartfelt condolences: love and light.

    I have masking tape over my camera aperture, since masking tape poses little damage. However, I have it triple rolled over the camera itself. Hope it’s enough? We carve out what little privacy we can in this “Brave New (Technological) World” and I only want to be spied upon if I’m ready for my “Glamor Shot”!

  38. 38
    Cervantes says:

    @Ben Franklin: The best kind.

  39. 39
    Xantar says:

    They definitely have the capability to knock down my door and shoot me dead where I sit. They are definitely going to do it.

    I could be dead by the time I finish writing this comment.

    Any minute now.

  40. 40
    Cervantes says:

    I couldn’t find where the NSA was actually helping.

    All set now?

  41. 41
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Cervantes:

    So if I use Microsoft Access to maintain a database of customers who buy drugs from me, the cops can arrest Microsoft for aiding and abetting my crimes by selling me the software I used to commit them?

    (Note to the NSA: this is a hypothetical situation.)

  42. 42
    jl says:

    @Mnemosyne: I’m sure they’d rush ahead and seize the microsoft assets asap, just like they do some hapless landlord who unknowingly has some pothead tenants growing some plants. All are equal under the law, right?

  43. 43
    ericblair says:

    @jl:

    I’m sure they’d rush ahead and seize the microsoft assets asap, just like they do some hapless landlord who unknowingly has some pothead tenants growing some plants. All are equal under the law, right?

    That would be a nice quick way to get asset forfeiture laws unpassed.

  44. 44
    srv says:

    And you people thought the RCC was the biggest pedophile ring.

    It’s ok if government does it.

  45. 45
    taylormattd says:

    @Mnemosyne: Looks like the Guardian changed the headline to delete the reference to the NSA, although it still remains in the URL.

  46. 46
    NonyNony says:

    @Baud:

    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.

    So … what you’re telling me is that if you indiscriminately collect webcam info from random people on the internet, you’re going to get a lot of dick shots? I’m utterly unsurprised.

    Next thing you’re going to tell me is that the feeds collected from the possibly mythical “turn on the webcam without you knowing it” feed are thousands of hours of people masturbating to internet porn.

    I can believe that governments do this kind of shit, but honestly – it’s so damn stupid. I’m much more concerned about the ability to target people like activists and politicians than I am this blanket data mining stupidity that seems to be all of the rage lately.

  47. 47
    Cervantes says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    So if I use Microsoft Access to maintain a database of customers who buy drugs from me, the cops can arrest Microsoft for aiding and abetting my crimes by selling me the software I used to commit them? (Note to the NSA: this is a hypothetical situation.)

    It’s conceivable that you’re referring to something real here — but I have no idea what.

  48. 48
    Cervantes says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    So selling a software tool is exactly the same thing as gathering and using the information yourself?

    Someone said that?

    And it has some connection to the Guardian article?

  49. 49
    cathyx says:

    @Mnemosyne: If the NSA has the software, don’t you think they’ve been using it on us? Can you be so naive to think they don’t?

  50. 50
    kindness says:

    I think a ChatRoulette joke needs to be dropped in here somewhere.

  51. 51
    Bill Arnold says:

    @Baud:
    There is apparently some concern that some of the material gathered is technically child porn. Strict laws in the UK.

  52. 52
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Cervantes:

    Good, so you agree with me that, while Britons have a perfect right to be pissed off at this story, it really has nothing to do with the NSA except as the seller of the software that GCHQ used to spy on British citizens. I’m glad that’s cleared up.

    @cathyx:

    If the NSA has the software, don’t you think they’ve been using it on us?

    Not really, no. As people point out every single time the actions of the GCHQ comes up, the laws in Great Britain are very different than the laws in the US. Right now, it’s perfectly legal for GCHQ to be spying on British citizens in Britain like that.

    However, it is NOT legal to do that in the US. So we’re supposed to take evidence of creepy-but-legal spying in Great Britain as proof positive that illegal spying is going on here?

  53. 53
    cathyx says:

    @Mnemosyne: You really drop my jaw.

  54. 54
    Cervantes says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    Good, so you agree with me that, while Britons have a perfect right to be pissed off at this story, it really has nothing to do with the NSA except as the seller of the software that GCHQ used to spy on British citizens. I’m glad that’s cleared up.

    No, I’m not saying any of that, either. You are.

  55. 55
    Tone in DC says:

    @RSR:

    As I recall, there were two judges on the take.

    Anyway, at least you don’t have Cooch/Torquemada, Bob McDonnell and Mrs. McDonnell in your commonwealth.

  56. 56
    ruemara says:

    This has also been happening with hackers breaking into the webcams of laptops and surreptitiously filming women and saving the footage to trade with each other.

  57. 57
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Cervantes:

    No, I’m not saying any of that, either. You are.

    Then what are you saying? In clear language.

    @cathyx:

    I’m not the one saying that legal behavior by an agency in one country is proof positive of illegal behavior by a similar agency in another country. You are.

    I don’t think the behavior should be legal in Great Britain but, right now, it is. If the people of Great Britain want to change that, they need to have a word with their government, but I’m not a British citizen, so I don’t get to tell them what to do.

  58. 58
    NotMax says:

    No cameras on any of my machinery, but if there were would paint over the lens with several layers of nail polish or something similar.

    Have always had a deep detestation for cameras.

    Other than being in a group shot at a step-sibling’s wedding (half-hidden, in the back), the last photograph I know of taken of me dates back to the time of the Nixon administration (and agreed to that one being snapped only after prolonged duress).

    (Yes, there are security cams everywhere, but they are unavoidable and have always tended to walk with the eyes looking downwards.)

  59. 59
    Cervantes says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    Then what are you saying? In clear language.

    What I said is still here. It’s not complicated.

  60. 60
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @cathyx: Evidence, pfft. Implication and paranoia are good enough for me!

  61. 61
    Cassidy says:

    @Mnemosyne: Because NSA, ooga booga.

  62. 62
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Cervantes:

    This is what you said:

    No? Maybe here:

    Couldn’t be more clear, right?

  63. 63
    Cervantes says:

    @Mnemosyne: Exactly.

  64. 64
    Shinobi says:

    What I find surprising about this article is:

    1. How did they not know that there would be naked people on these webcams? What internet are THEY on? Have they not heard of chat roulette?
    2. How low the percentages of naked people reported are.

  65. 65
    Ben Franklin says:

    @FlipYrWhig:

    How’s that again? You’re spooking the herd.

  66. 66
    Ben Franklin says:

    You’re in good hands with the NSA

    http://www.nbcwashington.com/n.....72321.html

  67. 67
    Ben Franklin says:

    just ban me. your passive-aggressive diddling is pathetic.

  68. 68
    Keith G says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    I’m not the one saying that legal behavior by an agency in one country is proof positive of illegal behavior by a similar agency in another country.

    What a turnip-like view.

    Remember when our govt. had a limit to how many brown ones it would torture in a year (snark), so they would ship some lucky ones off to Egypt etc.? Hey…our hands were clean…we didn’t skin them alive. No mam it warn’t us.

    The UK did this reported activity globally. How could one be surprised if the two intel agencies of the world’s two closest allies shared a little dark-gotten info on US residents? No mam, we didn’t do that.It warn’t us.

    If they don’t think there will be consequences, trusting Intel agencies to do the morally or legally correct thing is a mugs game.

  69. 69
    jayjaybear says:

    Jesus Christ, this place is gradually turning into Dudebro Central. When does Greenwald visit to get his ass kissed?

  70. 70
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Keith G:

    Remember when our govt. had a limit to how many brown ones it would torture in a year (snark), so they would ship some lucky ones off to Egypt etc.? Hey…our hands were clean…we didn’t skin them alive. No mam it warn’t us.

    The UK did this reported activity globally. How could one be surprised if the two intel agencies of the world’s two closest allies shared a little dark-gotten info on US residents? No mam, we didn’t do that.It warn’t us.

    So, again, the fact that the US government systematically did shady but technically legal things like extraordinary rendition is proof positive that they’re systematically doing illegal things because shut up, that’s why.

    ETA:

    If they don’t think there will be consequences, trusting Intel agencies to do the morally or legally correct thing is a mugs game.

    Intel agencies know there are consequences to doing illegal things — like getting their cases thrown out of court — which is why there have been accusations of the NSA and DEA trying to skirt the law by having the NSA tell the DEA they should just happen to check out a particular car at a particular time.

    Counting on intel agencies to do the moral thing when the immoral thing is perfectly legal is insane. Only a fool would expect that.

  71. 71
    David in NY says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    So if I use Microsoft Access to maintain a database of customers who buy drugs from me, the cops can arrest Microsoft for aiding and abetting my crimes by selling me the software I used to commit them?

    I have no idea what you think you’re getting at. But the answer may well depend on how much MS knows about what you’re doing. There’s a couple of old Supreme Court cases from the prohibition era in which the enablers of the day (sugar, not software, suppliers) got charged with conspiracy to make illegal booze after selling sugar to a bootlegger. In one the sugar daddy got off, in the other, got convicted. So the answer to your probably irrelevant question is a firm “maybe”.

  72. 72
    Cervantes says:

    @Keith G: Turnips have their redeeming features. They are high in Vitamin C and carotenoids. Turnip plants have been feeding humans for at least 4000 years.

  73. 73
    NotMax says:

    @Mnemosyne

    Pretty much no. Analogous to bringing charges against GM if a Chevy is used in commission of a crime.

  74. 74
    Cervantes says:

    @David in NY: Are you thinking of U. S. v. Direct Sales and U. S. v. Falcone?

    They are often discussed together (or were), but Direct Sales is not about sugar, so maybe you’re thinking of a different case.

  75. 75
    Cervantes says:

    @NotMax:

    Analogous to bringing charges against GM if a Chevy is used in commission of a crime.

    Really? Can you elaborate this analogy? (Thanks.)

  76. 76
    NotMax says:

    @Cervantes

    Doesn’t strike me as needing any elaboration beyond saying it is a personal opinion. Am not a lawyer (and do not play one on TV).

    But will posit another: even when the feds seize a computer and successfully prosecute, they don’t follow up with charges against Dell (or whomever).

  77. 77
    Cervantes says:

    @NotMax: Well, I appreciate your response.

    Curious to know about two strictly hypothetical cases: (1) Suppose two parties, without an explicit agreement, conspire to create a device that (both know) one of them will then use for breaking the law. And (2) suppose that one party supplies scarce resources that another party uses in a scheme to break the law. Is there any part of these hypotheticals that resembles a real situation or case you know of?

    I assume you and I can posit that (1) and (2) do not exactly mirror the NSA-GCHQ relationship, nor do they resemble the case of GM or Dell blindly selling a stock product to a customer who then does something illegal with it.

  78. 78
    NotMax says:

    @Cervantes

    All interesting.

    My original response was geared towards the question posed about someone using a Microsoft program for nefarious purposes making Microsoft liable, though, which I interpreted as in a different category than NSA-GCHQ.

  79. 79
    Cervantes says:

    @NotMax:

    My original response was geared towards the question posed about someone using a Microsoft program for nefarious purposes making Microsoft liable, though, which I interpreted as in a different category than NSA-GCHQ.

    Understood.

    Was just exploring your analogy (and your reading of the Guardian piece).

    Thanks.

  80. 80
    Socoolsofresh says:

    @Mnemosyne: You always love to derail the conversation to some nit-picking hypothetical question that you feel must be answered by people who are critical of anything NSA related. It is your go to tactic.

  81. 81
    Cervantes says:

    @jayjaybear:

    Jesus Christ, this place is gradually turning into Dudebro Central. When does Greenwald visit to get his ass kissed?

    You’re kidding! There’s a place on the Internet where someone does not agree with us about every last thing? Vulgar and inane mockery can make a good first line of defense — or rather, attack — sure! — but what else can we do, Comrade?

  82. 82
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    Leaving aside the legalities and whether or not the the NSA was at all central to any of it, this is simply an unbelievable waste of resources. What useful information is likely to be gathered from this?

  83. 83
    dollared says:

    It’s still just -weird- that Balloon Juice has this cluster of technically literate, ostensibly liberal people who feel that the government should have unlimited spying rights on our digital activities. Do they think it will never be used to target liberal activists? Do they really think it can’t be misused?

  84. 84
    Socoolsofresh says:

    @dollared: They actually are ostensibly Democratic Party people. As in, they are for whatever the Democratic Party is for, regardless of liberal merit. If it makes Democrats look bad, they will defend. If it makes Republicans look bad, they will attack. Simple as that.

  85. 85
    Cervantes says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Well, from the article:

    [The system was] used for experiments in automated [face detection and] facial recognition, to monitor GCHQ’s existing targets, and to discover new targets of interest. Such searches could be used to try to find terror suspects or criminals making use of multiple, anonymous user IDs.

    That’s the internal (or pseudo-internal) justification (or selling point).

  86. 86
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Cervantes: And yet my question remains unanswered. I have trouble seeing any real benefit from this. As a result, even if it were to be legal, it is stupid.

  87. 87
    tones says:

    @Belafon:
    My guess wold be equal to the sum of both…
    spam +netflix < spying

  88. 88
    dollared says:

    @Cervantes: this is a common issue. It’s a crime to sell burglary tools. You can be held liable if you give a gun to a known criminal.

  89. 89
    dollared says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Yup. On top of every legal implication, it’s just a scam. And then we hear that the US has a shortage of software people. Well, how about we free up 50,000 of them? Oh, it would moderate real estate prices in DC. Win-win!

  90. 90
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @dollared: “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.” — Joseph Fouché

  91. 91
    Cervantes says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Can you estimate the savings if our National Security establishment were to stop doing things that are either stupid or illegal?

  92. 92
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Cervantes: Lemme get me abacus.

Comments are closed.