Better Than a Telescreen

The Guardian, as part of its ongoing program of weakening the West by revealing bit by bit the Snowden documents, released a new one a few weeks ago about a GCHQ program called Optic Nerve. GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters, is the British equivalent of the NSA and because of the close relationship between the American and British Intelligence communities got caught in the Snowden web of stolen documents.  Optic Nerve was (or is?  Who knows?) a program for capturing video images from Yahoo video chats.

As The Guardian reports:

A model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham

A model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

The comparison that the paper immediately and obviously uses is the telescreen from Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s telescreens were basically TV’s that worked both ways; while you’re watching a show calling for all praise to the State (think Hardball), the TV is watching you back, checking to see if you’re rolling your eyes when Chris Matthews praises Obama or if you are in a rapturous state at the mention of his name.  The totalitarian implications of both the technology and the program are obvious.

So when I saw the story, why did I think, “Man that’s freakin’ cool?”

Well the technology is pretty neat.  And I can hardly blame an intelligence agency for wanting to know everything.  It’s only what any intelligence agency has every wanted, to be able to know absolutely everything.  The thing is, our technology is rapidly reaching the point where it’s possible to know, if not everything, than almost every communication that you make that has some sort of electronic component.

I can even see why GCHQ would be interested in screen capturing people’s video chats.  Imagine a situation in which a terrorist event in the UK has a shot of a suspect on closed circuit cameras.  Facial recognition software on the usual government databases turn up nothing.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have another source of pictures to scan through?  More than that, if you get a hit on a Yahoo image, that brings along quite a bit of other metadata associated with the Yahoo account being used.  That, my friends, is neat!

Low probability of success you say?  I would agree.  The odds are not great that you could check all legitimate government databases but then get a hit on a Yahoo video chat database, but who knows?  If it helps you solve a terrorist event, it would be worth it and all would be forgiven.

Low probability searching is becoming more and more worthwhile as the capacity for computer processing and data storage increases.  You only need a human to take a look at something if you actually get a hit on your searches. So that makes it more worthwhile to expand intelligence gathering into every nook and cranny on the off chance that you can prevent, or help solve, a terrorist event.

But that brings us back to telescreens and Orwell in general.  Do we really want to be observed to that extent that you literally are on someone’s video, phone, or internet presence at all times?  The Western nations are having that conversation right now, but the problem isn’t the intelligence programs, it’s the technology itself.  You may not like the NSA or GCHQ having this technology, but eventually, the technology will spread out so that everyone can have it.  Would having Putin’s Russia or the Red Chinese looking in everyone’s video chat be any better?  How about Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, or North Korea?  There are real totalitarian regimes right now that would love to have this technology for nothing but nefarious purposes and eventually, they will be able to buy it or build it themselves.

In the Western countries we think we can reign in our intelligence services by passing a law or something, and we can.  I can see us returning to a pre-World War II political climate in which, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” But we can’t pass a law stopping the Russians or Iranians from doing the same thing.  Even if we legally denude the ability of agencies like NSA, CSE, or GCHQ to achieve some sort of total information dominance, we can’t stop the rest of the world that could care less about our concerns for privacy.  I think you can imagine the possibilities of foreign dictatorships using these technologies to blackmail and manipulate westerners.

Maybe I’m naive, but if these technologies have to exist, I would rather the NSA or GCHQ have them than the Russian FAPSI or China’s Technical Department of the Central Military Commission.  But we are not going to get a choice on that since the technologies exist now and will eventually be acquired and used by the baddest of the bad.  Even Edward Snowden may look back in nostalgia when only the Western intelligence agencies had these capabilities.

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9 thoughts on “Better Than a Telescreen

  1. The major redeeming factor in collecting such immense quantities of data is that it’s almost impossible for a human being to sort through it. While you could sample the data or images randomly, you end up seeing pretty boring stuff. The only way to view anything embarrassing or criminal would be by searching the data using very specific search criteria. With NSA workers, at least, the search criteria entered are themselves monitored to reduce the possibility of individual workers using collected data for nefarious or prurient purposes. If you enter the phone number or IP address of an American, such as an ex-spouse, in a search, the search itself would be flagged for supervisors to check up on your potential misuse of the collected data.
    While the possibility now exists for a Big Brother type government to use such collected data to control its populous, we currently have safeguards in place to prevent that. It is possibe, that such safeguards could be disregarded by the issuance of a dictatorial fiat, I mean, Executive Order.
    Of course, once a dictatorship is in place, such a monitoring system could easily be set up from scratch, so crippling our current system wouldn’t make you free from surveillance.
    Our best bet is to keep up the oversight pressure on our spy agencies to keep them on the straight and narrow.


    • I agree that the really only practical answer to dealing with this technology is pretty strict rules and active oversight by our elected officials. The technology isn’t going away and are adversaries are not going to not use it.


  2. I’ve often thought of the internet itself as the telescreen, not necessarily the programs mining data from it. The scary thing is that people don’t even need to be spied upon to reveal their whole lives– people do it willingly and without hesitation, often including details that are damning to them. We seem to be approaching a future where privacy is a rare– and even unwanted– commodity.

    I wonder how far back this kind of collection has been going. When I was in college (1990s) there were credible rumors that the university kept permanent copies of every voicemail on the internal phone system. That means Obama’s voice is in there somewhere!


    • Yes we talk about privacy, but in our real lives, we surrender it all the time, and gladly too. That’s why I think it’s silly to worry about the NSA having a copy of your phone bill while at the same time they sign up for grocery store cards, that track every single thing you purchase. That sort of data could potentially tell a lot more about someone than phone metadata.


      • A few years back, I was being trained in the use of a well-known database service (I won’t say which one), when the instructor explained where they got all of their information for people searches. There were the usual suspects: credit card companies, banks, real property records, motor vehicle records, voter registration records; but there was one that surprised me. The instructor referred to this as the “pizza database.” This database was gleaned from take-out/delivery food places across the country that would sell your name, address and phone number to the database company. Something to think about next time you’re ordering dinner. 😉

        By the way, if you’re really worried about invasion of your privacy, you’ll want to keep the government out of the healthcare business. There’s a lot of potential for abuse there.


      • It seems as if I recall DC reporters using Pizza orders at the Pentagon as a measure of people working late nights and preparing for some sort of military action. I think it’s called PIZZINT.

        Since we’re sending medical records to the IRS, I find it odd that people who are freaked out by phone metadata seem to be perfectly cool with the government having your medical records. I don’t get it.


  3. I wonder if the facial recognition technology algorithm takes into account what a terrorist’s face looks like when he is making his “oh” face, you know, when he’s turning Japanese, you know, masterbating terrorists…


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