Optic Nerve: From Unwilling Accomplices to Adversaries

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Optic Nerve (Courtesy: Chris Jackson)

By Ann-Marie de Veer
Saturday 8 March 2014

If the corollary of using a mobile phone is to be geo-located then the acquiescence of millions of unwilling accomplices is to total surveillance.

In the latest explosive release of information about the nefarious practices of GCHQ and the NSA by the Guardian, Optic Nerve is the most personally invasive thus far. The programme is yet another of the many mass surveillance tools at the disposal of the agencies that indiscriminately and covertly collect the bulk data of users regardless of whether they are an intelligence target or not. The difference this time is that it involved the capture of one still image every 5 minutes from a Yahoo! users webcam, some of which were highly sensitive, deeply personal and even explicit.


Courtesy: Guardian)


In response to this blatant breach of privacy, GCHQ issued its boilerplate response:

It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position."

Understandably, there were varying degrees of condemnation as politicians and human rights groups waded into the ensuing debate. David Davies, a UK Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) said (Courtesy: Guardian):

We now know that millions of Yahoo account holders were filmed without their knowledge through their webcams, the images of which were subsequently stored by GCHQ and the NSA. This is, frankly, creepy.
It is entirely improper to extend such intrusive surveillance on a blanket scale to ordinary citizens.

While Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch exclaimed (Courtesy: Guardian):

We have CCTV on our streets and now we have GCHQ in our homes. It is right that the security services can target people and tap their communications, but they should not be doing it to millions of people. This is an indiscriminate and intimate intrusion on people's privacy.
It is becoming increasingly obvious how badly the law has failed to keep pace with technology, and how urgently we need a comprehensive review of surveillance law and oversight structures.
As more people buy technology with built-in cameras, from Xbox Kinect to laptops and smart TVs, we need to be sure that the law does not allow for them to be routinely accessed when there is no suspicion of any wrongdoing. Orwell's 1984 was supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual.

What is interesting about this particular issue is that it was over ten years ago when the idea of viewing a remote webcam was raised. Over the years people have been working out how to remotely turn on someones webcam without them knowing and how to activate webcam spy software. In April last year it became common knowledge that hackers could remotely switch on a webcam and/or a microphone and even take control of the computer itself. In the post whistleblower Snowden era it is now publicly acknowledged that the FBI can turn on your webcam and you would never know it.

Another interesting aspect of this issue is that if the government, or anyone else for that matter, asked the public to fit a camera and/or a microphone in their home, their car or about their person they would refuse citing privacy as being sacrosanct in their lives. And yet, there are now billions of people who have all manner of devices including notebooks, laptops, tablets, mobile phones and other GPS and WiFi enabled equipments: all targets for the collect-it-all agencies to master.

There is little doubt that the Pandora's Box of Camfecting has been opened and millions of people have been compromised.

Therefore, even though GCHQ and the NSA have become an adversary of ordinary citizens and both the regulatory and supervisory bodies of these agencies have failed thus far in their duty of oversight, it is never too late to regain control of our privacy. There are many non-proprietary hardware manufacturers, if hardware is an issue, and of course cameras/microphones can be covered up, disabled or completely disconnected where necessary. For software, there are free open-source alternatives to choose from and a good place to start would be StartPage or DuckDuckGo as your default search engine followed by Fedora plus TOR or Tails as your operating system.

It is time to take back what has been stolen.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.