Privacy fans were right to worry about the new Xbox’s camera. It turns out GCHQ has been harvesting all the webcam streams it can get its mitts on and feeding the result into face recognition databases.
In this case, the documents talk about snarfing down Yahoo webcams and a “wider program” to exploit Xbox Kinect and other video streams. It’s probably safe to assume things go much further.
Either way, the result of the Yahoo program is GCHQ has a library of 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts’ webcam activity.
And you know what the joke is? While they claim not to have the “technical means” to filter out UK and US citizens — being British, they went to considerable effort to filter out “sexually explicit” content.
Apparently about 7.1% of webcam images contain sexually explicit content… so in order to “protect” analysts, they put in a measure that images which facial recognition software didn’t find a face would not be shown to analysts.
(“But the word ‘analyst’ even contains the word anal! Whaddya mean it’s not part of our job description?”)
Of course, the sexually explicit images are still STORED, presumably for use in blackmail or other influence operations.
“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.[…]
GCHQ does not have the technical means to make sure no images of UK or US citizens are collected and stored by the system, and there are no restrictions under UK law to prevent Americans’ images being accessed by British analysts without an individual warrant.[…]
Sexually explicit webcam material proved to be a particular problem for GCHQ, as one document delicately put it: “Unfortunately … 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.”
The document estimates that between 3% and 11% of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested by GCHQ contains “undesirable nudity”. Discussing efforts to make the interface “safer to use”, it noted that current “naïve” pornography detectors assessed the amount of flesh in any given shot, and so attracted lots of false positives by incorrectly tagging shots of people’s faces as pornography. NSA ragout 1
GCHQ did not make any specific attempts to prevent the collection or storage of explicit images, the documents suggest, but did eventually compromise by excluding images in which software had not detected any faces from search results – a bid to prevent many of the lewd shots being seen by analysts.
The system was not perfect at stopping those images reaching the eyes of GCHQ staff, though. An internal guide cautioned prospective Optic Nerve users that “there is no perfect ability to censor material which may be offensive. Users who may feel uncomfortable about such material are advised not to open them”.
It further notes that “under GCHQ’s offensive material policy, the dissemination of offensive material is a disciplinary offence”.[…]
While the documents do not detail efforts as widescale as those against Yahoo users, one presentation discusses with interest the potential and capabilities of the Xbox 360’s Kinect camera, saying it generated “fairly normal webcam traffic” and was being evaluated as part of a wider program.
Documents previously revealed in the Guardian showed the NSA were exploring the video capabilities of game consoles for surveillance purposes.
Microsoft, the maker of Xbox, faced a privacy backlash last year when details emerged that the camera bundled with its new console, the Xbox One, would be always-on by default.
Beyond webcams and consoles, GCHQ and the NSA looked at building more detailed and accurate facial recognition tools, such as iris recognition cameras – “think Tom Cruise in Minority Report”, one presentation noted.