The New Snowden Revelation is Creepy, But Not As Over-the-Top As It Appears

Allow me to preface this by underscoring that I’m not becoming a Johnny-Come-Lately supporter of the Snowden/Greenwald clique. That said, unless we learn new mitigating evidence (always possible), I can’t help but to be a little creeped out by the new Snowden revelation in The Guardian about how the British GCHQ collected screen grabs and metadata from millions of Yahoo! webcam chats.

From 2008 to 2012, the British counterpart to the National Security Agency tapped into cables allowing it to sweep up internet communications including still-frames from video chats perhaps, but not confirmed to include American citizens. The program, codenamed Optic Nerve, “experimented” with facial recognition software to match the users’ faces with those of targeted terrorists or bad actors.

Reporters Spencer Ackerman and James Ball reported that the GCHQ doesn’t have any rules requiring minimization of inadvertently collected data.

Additionally, “between 3% and 11%” of the images contained nudity (I think we’re all old enough to remember the very public, and very naked “Chat Roulette” site).

What makes this more obnoxious than other revelations is the combination the sheer volume of the collection, coupled with the existence of so many un-minimized and sometimes pornographic images, including perhaps American faces/privates. On top of that and as with the bulk collection of metadata, it’s clear that these methods of capture are just too cumbersome and sloppy to be effective. There has to be a more precise way to do this.

But I say all of this with a large dollop of caution because as we’ve witnessed time and time again, new information not included in the articles has invariably emerged within days of a new revelation, often rendering impotent the impact of the stories.

In this case, no matter how creepy this might seem, the reporting was typically murky, scattered and vague. Additionally, there are indeed several things in the article as well as within an article in Pando Daily that somewhat mitigate the news.

–This is the U.K. government, not the U.S. government.

–The user accounts were anonymous. There’s nothing in the reporting that indicates the GCHQ matched proper names to the images. Ackerman and Ball write that it was impossible to “filter out information from UK or US citizens” because the images were anonymous.

–The content of the chats weren’t recorded, nor was any video captured. The Guardian: “[T]he 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.”

–Distributing any naked images was a “disciplinary offence.” At least there’s that.

–The program required oversight by the foreign secretary under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, William Hague.

–Ackerman and Ball invoked the Orwell 1984 metaphor, which, much like Godwin’s Law and Nazi references, is unnecessarily hyperbolic.

Pando Daily reported Thursday that during the time of this operation, many Yahoo! chats were in fact public, meaning anyone could see them. In addition, Yahoo! didn’t encrypt its private chats until 2012, coincidentally when Optic Nerve ended. What this means is that any low level hacker could see the private chats of anyone, anonymous or otherwise. Again, Optic Nerve only looked at anonymous chats. I asked Ackerman yesterday for clarification on whether the collection was from private chats or public chats or both. He has yet to respond.

Decide for yourself whether these mitigating observations blunt the impact of this revelation. At first glance, I felt this was a step over the line of propriety, but given these additional facts, I’ve downgraded my reaction to “creepy.” I suspect we’ll learn more in the coming days.

One thing is abundantly clear: after so much crying wolf, people who might otherwise be concerned about something like Optic Nerve are probably not paying attention any more.

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  • Felix von Matthuber

    uh yes that helps – deleting unwished comments. this is true freedom.
    again: snowden is a hero.

  • doyougetmesweetheart

    I want to comment solely on the author’s opening statement, which was: “Allow me to preface this by underscoring that I’m not becoming a Johnny-Come-Lately supporter of the Snowden/Greenwald clique.” What I’m about to say in response to that statement comes from a position of presuming that Bob Cesca is an American citizen.

    That said, it seems that Mr. Cesca needs to be reminded that Snowden put his life on the line to tip off his fellow Americans that their Constitutional rights were being flagrantly violated. Yes, that’s right – Snowden did what he did out of a sense of moral responsibility to us – that’s you; that’s me; that’s Cesca; that’s all of us – he did it for us. And; being fully aware of the duplicitous nature of the government, Snowden knew that the miscreants would want to put a lid on the information he was about to reveal – the position they would be caught in demanded it. Yes, Snowden brought things and men to light; that might have otherwise been kept covered – and he did it for us. Obama should have called for an immediate investigation of the NSA for violating our Constitutional rights – it was his DUTY as President, to keep the oath he took when he was inaugurated; to uphold and protect The Constitution. But he didn’t. Instead, he hastens to capture the man who reported the misdoings – what does that tell you?

    We should rally around Edward Snowden, for what he did for us. For Bob Cesca to say that he “is not a Snowden/Greenwald supporter” is very disturbing. It calls to question his perspective. Hopefully he just isn’t seeing things clearly …. because anyone who is not grateful for what Snowden did is not someone I can feel a kinship with as a fellow American who believes this country should be run according to the rule of The Constitution.

  • mrbrink

    Death by sexy data. Probably has nothing at all to do with catching human traffickers and international sex slavers, pedophiles, or that suspected terrorist just discovering Chat Roulette for the umpteenth time, and everything to do with black chopper decepticons infiltrating our raw pubic information to use as Exhibit 69, Dude! at our secret pre”trial” hearing/firing squad/funeral, where it’s off to an unmarked FEMA grave because planting disinformation and renditioning every last privacy hero off to exotic military tribunal locales is getting expensive.

    • feloniousgrammar

      I think you nailed it, mr brink— what else could it mean?

  • feloniousgrammar

    Perhaps someone’s face really did look like someone else’s ass?

    • dbtheonly

      fg,

      Isn’t that the point of testing out the face recognition software? There are what, 7 billion of us? Bound to be similarities. Thinking of President Obama & that Middle-Eastern chap hired to play Satan.

      With ~200 NSA Analyists, can’t afford to waste resources on look-alikes.

  • feloniousgrammar

    In the technological race that has always been the nature of spying, isn’t face recognition a logical move? If it worked, then the face of a known or suspected terrorist could possibly be found without persons having to look at irrelevant images. The assumption that all those naked chats were a great pleasure to watch might be a little off, as well. It’s not like it’s difficult to find naked chats on the web, or any other kind of amateur pornography and anyone can have naked chats of their own.

    One might stop and consider that working on a cutting edge technology that serves a purpose might be a whole lot more compelling than random looks at random chats on the internet. And one might also consider that most of the people working in intelligence actually care about their job, the value of intelligence, and the quality of their own and their teams’ work for the purposes of carrying out their missions. This non-stop wallowing in the straw man evil pervert intelligence tech is juvenile and asinine. It seems that Snowald doesn’t understand the whole having a job thing.

    One might also consider that having naked chats on the web with an expectation of privacy hither and yon is a little simple-minded.

    • Trulyunbelievable2020

      Jesus Christ.

      1) “In the technological race that has always been the nature of spying, isn’t face recognition a logical move?”

      Yes, of course it is. That’s why it’s so important for democratic countries to provide legislative and institutional checks on the “technological race.” What you seem to be suggesting is that we should accept the fact that intelligence agencies will use any technology just because they can.

      2) “It’s not like it’s difficult to find naked chats on the web, or any other kind of amateur pornography…”

      True. The majority of these are posted voluntarily. When they are posted without the knowledge of the people involved, then someone’s privacy has been violated.

      This reminds me of the argument that I’ve seen several times about how hypocritical it is for people who share details of their lives on Facebook to complain about surveillance.

      But that argument is way off the mark. The operative term is “share.” I
      share a lot of information about my life on social networks, but I choose the
      information that I share. If I call, say, an STD clinic to schedule a test, I don’t turn around and tweet that.

      3) “One might stop and consider that working on a cutting edge technology that serves a purpose might be a whole lot more compelling than random looks at random chats on the internet.”

      Holy goalpost shifting batman! So now it’s only a real violation of privacy if the person looking at images from my private conversation is doing so for
      his own private curiosity/sexual satisfaction? I don’t care if a spy thinks he has a good reason to look at these images, just as I don’t care if a cop stops and searches every black teenager he sees because he wants to fight crime rather than because he is a racist who wants to hassle black people. The question is: does the spy (or the cop) have the right to do that? The answer is “no.”

      4) “One might also consider that having naked chats on the
      web with an expectation of privacy hither and yon is a little simple-minded.”

      What you’re arguing is that advances in technology will render “privacy” a completely irrelevant concept. Think about it this way: the technology
      necessary to put a tiny, virtually undetectable camera in someone’s home has
      existed for some time. Just yesterday some maintenance guys came to my apartment in order to fix a leak. It’s entirely possible that one of them could
      have put one of those cameras on my wall. Are you seriously suggesting that it would be “a little simple-minded” for me to assume that every single conversation I’m having with my wife isn’t being recorded just because it’s technically possible to record them?

  • Simon Saez

    “We’re not listening to your phone calls.” – Barack Obama

    But what they ARE doing is much worse.

    Bob’s statement that “this is the UK, not the US government,” is highly misleading (probably intentionally).

    According to The Hill, the NSA assisted GCHQ in the webcam spying, and the Senate is going to investigate the NSA’s role: http://thehill.com/blogs/hillicon-valley/technology/199505-tech-industry-slams-nsa-webcam-spying

    • i_a_c

      The original Guardian piece said that NSA “systems” and “research” were used, but it’s unbelievably vague as to what that might mean. You’d think that if they had real dirt on NSA involvement in this program, they’d spill it rather than using vague insinuations.

      Given that all of the documents were GCHQ’s, and a paragraph in the article saying it’s “unclear” what kind of access the NSA has to this stuff, I think it’s fair to conclude for now that this is a British program for all intents and purposes.

    • repugnicant

      **According to The Hill, the NSA assisted GCHQ in the webcam spying, and the Senate is going to investigate the NSA’s role**

      And you got this information from reading in between the lines?

      • Simon Saez

        Did you read the article? Here is the one about the Senate investigating: http://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/senate/199565-senators-blast-nsa-for-webcam-spying

        • repugnicant

          Um.. 3 guys don’t make up the Senate, and Wyden has been vowing for a long while now, in between his vows to privatize Medicare and frack the shit out of his home state that he rarely spends time in.

          You have to ask yourself why someone like Wyden goes silent for weeks if there were actually massive civil rights violations going on 24/7, or why the media in general now sighs a collective ‘meh’ on these Armageddon Greenwald ‘blockbusters’, or why someone like Markos Moulitsas gets so fed up with the tin-foil going on at his site that he publicly posts a ‘shut the fuck up already and grow up’ comment for all to read.

          The cult’s refusal to demand verifiable evidence has pretty much killed the whole debate, and the hard core followers have no one to blame but themselves… which apparently is why they’re all blaming everyone else. I wouldn’t be holding my breath for Wyden to do anything of substance, unless you consider posturing substantive..

          • Simon Saez

            But they are on relevant committee that would opt to do the investigation of this.

            In response to your awkwardly off-topic tirade against Wyden, I would say that I would much rather have Peter DeFazio (who ran in the primary against Wyden in 1996) as one of the Senators from Oregon than Wyden.

            The rest of your post is little more than spouted-out gibberish. I started reading this “news” site because I was hoping for some good debates with overtly partisan Democrats, and although there have been some good ones, your post, lacking in any minimal form of substance, makes this not one of them.

          • repugnicant

            How do you expect to have good debates when you’ve already determined that the NSA is watching you jerk off in front of your webcam?? You can’t make an accusation without hard facts and then complain that people are skeptical.

            As far as Wyden, he’s a joke who’s obviously driven by his own personal motives, NOT by what’s good for everyone. Like I said, don’t hold your breath.

          • Jason

            Wyden certainly has been driven by the personal motive of not wanting to be incarcerated for revealing classified material. That took a genuinely brave soul like Edward Snowden. Given the way whistleblowers are treated in the USA it is very rational concern.

          • repugnicant

            Wyden has been using that same excuse for years. The Snowdenites seem to be attracted to very weak men.

          • Jason

            It is sad that Wyden couldn’t be more forthright. But then that just helps explain why Snowden had to take his information outside the regular channels in order to get something done.

          • repugnicant

            LoL. So, Wyden says ‘I’ve seen classified information that is sooooo bad, the worst assault on our civil rights, the end of our freedoms, George Orwell, Big Brother, 1984.. but I don’t want to chance any jail time, so F*CK Y’ALL and your civil rights!’ The reasonings of a classic Libertarian, which does explain his other anti-socialistic actions.

            Someday, you may see the blatant humor in all of this, maybe 20/30 years down the road, after Wyden has retired to another state other than Oregon, with his big stash of fracking/private insurance lobbyist ‘gifts’.

          • Jason

            lol….this crew really do love their “awkwardly off-topic tirades”

  • repugnicant

    I think that since they chose (again) to sensationalize the article with 1984 that there are definitely pieces being consciously left out. Its always a vague, murky Apocalyptic narrative.

  • formerlywhatithink

    “but given these additional facts”

    This sums up the whole Snowden “revelations” affair perfectly. It’s always “HOLY SHIT, LOOK WHAT THE GOVERNMENT!!!!!”, which promptly runs into the “but given these additional facts” wall of sanity.

    • dbtheonly

      But the constant, might, could have, potential, possible, perhaps, leaves me losing interest in the whole subject.

  • Jason

    I think your Orwell = Godwin attempted equivalency jumped the shark about 3 Orwellian revelations ago.

    Incidentally, how about some admiration for those at The Guardian. There is a chance the UK government is going to criminally charge some of the journalists and editorial staff, and they are still publishing this important stuff.

  • msq

    That’s the thing about the Snowden/Greenwald saga: every new revelation is treated like the harbinger of the apocalypse. And when it doesn’t quite pan out…well, there’s always next time.

    No wonder these leaks are starting to get repetitive.

    • ultraviolet_uk

      The irony is, “Oh my God, the spies are storing pictures of you naked from what you thought were private moments” would have been a legitimate outrage inducer. I would have expected it to be story number one, or at worst, in the first three or four.

      The very fact that it is story number 439 makes me assume there is too much material that debunks this story for them to have run it earlier. I could be wrong. But that is the problem with them having trashed their own reputations with such piss-poor activist writing masquerading as journalism over the past few months. Most people will now just assume it is false, because all the rest turned out to be.

      • msq

        There’s a sort of paradox in all this. On the one hand, they’ve been posting such misleading leaks to the public to the point of eliciting a sort of “what else is new?” indifference. On the other, it’s increasing the odds of significant diplomatic blowback and intelligence breakdowns…if not causing them already, as is the case between Germany and America or Indonesia and Australia.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

    Still holding out, eh Bob? Just think, it’s possible you could become a surveillance state critic in less than three years! I’d say you’re on your way. Keep it up!

  • Mike Lumisch

    The freakshow over at the Daily Kos is creaming its collective shorts over this one:

    SEE! I TOLD YOU THE NSA WAS WATCHING ME MASTURBATE!

    They are like the no nukes crowd, who already have the champagne iced in case somebody actually dies at Fukushima.

    • repugnicant

      It was funny when Kos went off on all the tin-foil. He can feel his site getting lumped in with all the other conspiracy-minded sites.

      • Richard_thunderbay

        There’s a diarist over there who goes by the name Ray Pensador who has developed a religious cult style following (speaking of creepy) and is a primary ring leader. He and his minions have been going around accusing any critics of being NSA plants, which is really what set Kos off, I think.

        • Jason

          given the JTRIG training info on infiltrating online communities, it is hardly an unreasonable expectation now is it?

          • Richard_thunderbay

            When you’re accusing practically everyone who disagrees with the “Snowden is the new Jesus” crowd as being part of a NSA conspiracy, then you’ve really gone off the deep end. On kos, everyone’s posting history is easily accessible. Long time and respected posters have been saddled with the CT accusations. It’s fucking bullshit.

          • Jason

            You throw that “Snowden is the new Jesus” line out where while complaining about someone else being hyperbolic?

          • feloniousgrammar

            Accusing someone of being a paid NSA troll is hyperbole? Is not— calling someone something as specific as that is not an exaggeration. In the context of the Snowden conversation, it’s a noun with specific modifiers that suggests that the person using it is doing nothing less than making an accusation to nullify that person’s comments, perhaps because the accuser has no argument and is in the throes of an emotarian meltdown, in which he/she will say anything to justify their own kookiness.

          • Richard_thunderbay

            That’s exactly what’s been going on at dkos. The accusations have been used in an attempt to silence criticism.

          • Jason

            I imagine those accusations would be less effective if the Snowden documents hadn’t been leaked

          • Richard_thunderbay

            The idiocy is that we’re supposed to believe that people who have been on the site for years and years were in “deep cover”, lying in wait for something like the Snowden leaks to occur before going about their evil mission to spread NSA propaganda.

            As I said, fucking bullshit.

          • Jason

            That sounds like an argument an NSA plant would make.

          • formerlywhatithink
          • Jason

            descending to banal personal attacks as a means of distraction is also something an NSA plant might do.

          • Richard_thunderbay

            That sounds like an argument a troll would make.

            Quite frankly, around here, I think you’re the most likely candidate for being professional troll, given your posting patterns.

            If an article is posted on this site about Snowden and/or Greenwald you are always here to scold people. Always. You don’t seem have any interest on articles on any other subject.

            You’ve repeatedly described Cesca’s articles as boring and/or stupid, yet you keep on coming back, making exactly the same points over and over again, and you’ve posted several hundred comments in the process. One wonders what is making it worth the effort on your part.

          • Jason

            it is definitely an argument a troll might make :-)
            if only it were a paying profession. :-(

          • Richard_thunderbay

            Given that you’ve announced yourself as a troll, there’s no reason for anyone to engage you at all from this point on.

          • Jason

            You can stop any time you like

          • Jason

            calling one person something specific is not necessarily hyperbolic, calling “practically everyone” probably is. What you have to understand is that sometimes it is easier to assume that someone is a paid shill than to confront that sad truth that some people can be so totally submissive and apologetic for a security state.

          • feloniousgrammar

            Maybe the problem is that “some people” can’t accept that the NSA performs a Constitutionally mandated mission to provide for the common defense and those same “some people” are so determined to play out some David to Goliath role in their heads that they’ll milk any opportunity to submit that they are brave crusaders aligned with some monumental “truth” because they think our government and most or all of people working in our government are evil.

            Get a job.

          • Jason

            Now now fg, you are sounding remarkably hyperbolic.
            And i already have a job.