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ICYMI- Senators to Investigate NSA Role in GCHQ ‘Optic Nerve’ Webcam Spying

The Guardian
Senators to investigate NSA role in GCHQ ‘Optic Nerve’ webcam spying
Posted Friday 28 February 2014 12.14 EST

Three US senators are planning to investigate any role the National Security Agency played in its British partner’s mass collection of Yahoo webcam images.

Reacting to the Guardian’s revelation on Thursday that UK surveillance agency GCHQ swept up millions of Yahoo users’ webcam chats, senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich said in a joint statement that “any involvement of US agencies in the alleged activities reported today will need to be closely scrutinized”.

The senators described the interception as a “breathtaking lack of respect for privacy and civil liberties”.

On Friday, the Internet Association – a trade body representing internet giants including Google, Amazon, eBay, Netflix, AOL and Twitter – joined the chorus of condemnation, issuing a statement expressing alarm at the latest GCHQ revelations, and calling for reform.

According to documents provided to the Guardian by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the GCHQ program codenamed Optic Nerve fed screengrabs of webcam chats and associated metadata into NSA tools such as Xkeyscore.

NSA research, the documents indicate, also contributed to the creation of Optic Nerve, which attempted to use facial recognition technology to identify intelligence targets, particularly those using multiple anonymous internet IDs.

Neither NSA nor GCHQ addressed the Guardian’s questions about US access to the images themselves. Outgoing NSA director Keith Alexanderwalked away from a reporter on Thursday who asked the army four-star general about the NSA’s role in Optic Nerve.

Wyden, Udall and Heinrich are all members of the Senate intelligence committee. They said they were “extremely troubled” by Optic Nerve and planned to investigate it during the committee’s announced omnibus inquiry into the scope of US surveillance activities revealed over the nine months since the Guardian and other news outlets began reporting the Snowden disclosures.

“We are extremely troubled by today’s press report that a very large number of individuals – including law-abiding Americans – may have had private videos of themselves and their families intercepted and stored without any suspicion of wrongdoing. If this report is accurate it would show a breathtaking lack of respect for the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens,” they said.

GCHQ’s program, which uses data collected by cable taps as it transits the internet, does not filter out information from British or American webcams. Under UK law, there is no requirement for UK or US material to be removed from the agency’s databases. Additional legal safeguards apply when analysts come to search the database for material on individuals located in the British Isles, though there are no UK laws banning searches for US citizens’ data without a warrant.

The documents seen by the Guardian make clear the lengths to which GCHQ has gone to prevent sexually explicit material appearing in the analysts’ searches. According to one document, it made up between 3% and 11% of the material stored under Optic Nerve.

The agency used face recognition software in an attempt to prevent explicit images clogging up search results but the documents make it clear that those tools were not always successful. Analysts were advised that if they were “uncomfortable about such material” they should not open the images. The guidance adds: “Retrieval and or reference to such material should be avoided.”

GCHQ declined to comment on Optic Nerve but said all its programs operated in full accordance with UK law.

The three US senators said the revelation prompted new thinking about how the interconnectedness of global communications had “dramatically increased the likelihood of innocent Americans being swept up in intelligence collection nominally aimed at foreigners.

“It is becoming clearer and clearer that more needs to be done to ensure that ‘foreign’ intelligence collection does not intrude unnecessarily on the rights of law-abiding people or needlessly undermine the competitiveness of America’s leading industries.”

President Barack Obama said in a 17 January speech that foreigners ought to enjoy some degree of privacy from US surveillance, but has left the specifics undefined.

In a statement, the Internet Association’s CEO Michael Beckerman said:

Today’s revelations, about British intelligence practices, are alarming and reaffirm the need for greater transparency and reform of government surveillance.

Governments must immediately act to reform the practices and laws regulating surveillance and collection of Internet users’ information. The most pressing Internet user privacy issue continues to concern governments’ access to and use of electronic data. The Internet Association supports the Reform Government Surveillance principles and encourages legislation to limit governments’ authority to collect users’ information and increase transparency about government demands.