Britain’s surveillance agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was somewhat taken aback to discover the extent that the internet is used for porn. According to files released by United States National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the GCHQ conducted a surveillance program between 2008 and 2010 called Optic Nerve, which captured stills of webcam sessions in massive scales. Some 1.8 million Yahoo users were tapped during a six-month period.
The documents describe the users whose images were collected as being “unselected” — that is, people who had not been selected by the agency as being intelligence targets. As the Guardian points out, the GCHQ doesn’t have the technical means to ensure that no images of United Kingdom citizens are collected and stashed in agency data centers. In case you were wondering, U.S. citizens don’t have any protections in British law to prevent the GCHQ’s accessing of their chats without an explicit warrant — nor do those of Australia, Canada, or New Zealand.
The stills were gathered using the agency’s internet cable taps, a network they set up with assistance from the NSA. It is currently unknown whether the American agency has access to the data, though the GCHQ does use the NSA’s XKeyscore search to conduct analysis and the agencies engage in a fair deal of information sharing.
Yahoo, like many other technology giants that have seen their users’ information accessed without due process, was furious when it learned of the program.
“We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity,” a Yahoo spokeswoman told the Guardian. “This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable, and we strongly call on the world’s governments to reform surveillance law consistent with the principles we outlined in December.”
The purpose of Optic Nerve was to develop and hone facial recognition technologies in order to monitor targets known to the GCHQ making use of multiple user IDs, as well as to ferret out potential new targets. The program saved a still from these conversations every five minutes.
“Face detection has the potential to aid selection of useful images for ‘mugshots’ or even for face recognition by assessing the angle of the face,” the leaked document says, adding: “The best images are ones where the person is facing the camera with their face upright.”
Alas for the British surveillance apparatus, that’s not how a percentage of users go about camming:
“Unfortunately, there are some issues with undesirable images within the data,” reads a document. “It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person. Also, the fact that the Yahoo software allows more than one person to view a webcam stream without necessarily sending a reciprocal stream means that it appears sometimes to be used for broadcasting pornography.”
Shocking. Simply shocking.
The GCHQ was stumped on how to make collections more useful — and more safe-for-work. Unfortunately for them, so-called “pornography detectors” work by assessing the amount of flesh on any given frame, and are often triggered by things like close-ups of faces. Eventually, the hardworking agents settled for excluding images in which no faces were detected. This didn’t really fix the problem, though — a lot of us like to spread them with our faces in the frame — so the agency had to issue caution to Optic Nerve operatives. “Users who may feel uncomfortable about such material are advised not to open them [the images],” an internal guide said, adding that “the dissemination of offensive material is a disciplinary offence.”
The document estimates that between 3 and 11 percent of its absolutely necessary, totally lawful collection of stills from Yahoo webcam conversations has turned out to be useless, “undesirable nudity.”
Bet you never thought you’d ever be able to count your webcam-enabled wank-fests as an act of resistance. Perv on, perv on.
Header image by Brooke.