According to the latest Snowden revelation, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which works in close collaboration with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), has been intercepting and storing images of millions of Yahoo webcam-chat users in a program appropriately code-named “Optic Nerve.”
Leaked GCHQ documents indicate that the snoops have discovered that “Unfortunately…it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of the body to the other person” and that “it appears sometimes to be used for broadcasting pornography.” (To which the modern mind responds: “Well, duh…”)
Such observations, delivered with the matter-of-factness one might expect from an entomologist discussing insect sexual behavior, should not surprise anyone. With the advent of the webcam, of course some people will “show intimate parts of the body to the other person.” This is their private business, legal in most countries, and perhaps in certain situations useful in facilitating relationships. I suspect most GCHQ staffers realize this.
But the fact that this is “surprising” to the person writing the report, and deemed “unfortunate” for some reason (most likely, because it might offend or distract the snoop assigned to track terrorists, monitor the Pope’s communications, engage in economic espionage etc.) is on the one hand amusing. Young people in particular, reading this new revelation, must think: What a bunch of Victorian fools they are! (According to a University of Texas study in 2002, 30% of U.S. teens had engaged in “sexting.” A poll in the UK last year found that six in ten British teens have done the same.)
On the other hand, it is anything but amusing to think that, justifying each and every intrusion of privacy as necessary to defend us all against “terror,” the global Anglo-American surveillance apparatus is storing your erotic chats for current or future perusal should you ever find yourself on a secret list of “persons of interest.” Or even until some mid-level “intelligence analyst” with access decides he/she wants to know more about you.
One would be highly naïve to suppose that such things happen only after some semblance of legal due process. It’s not a question of someone taking legal action against you on the basis of what they know or see (yet should not know or see), having no legal (constitutional) basis to know or see. East Germany’s Stasi had records on tens of millions that produced no legal action. They were not busting into people’s apartments in the middle of the night so much as just watching…watching… watching…. because (like our Stasi) they could.
And because they thought they were a moral, patriotic elite that had the right to know everything about everyone.
We are all naked now, in full view of the state. Its optic nerve like yours is connected to brains, but not to just one. Edward Snowden suggests that there are tens of thousands who can access the minutiae of our lives. Let us imagine that among them you have folks “surprised” at how many people show body parts online. Let us imagine that those sorting through your stuff comprise a (narrow) range mirroring that of the U.S. political class, including religious fanatics, mindless war hawks, quiet racists, buttheads who think Obama’s a communist, and people who just think “total information awareness” is cool and access to it pleasantly empowering.
The Guardian report on this, citing the snoops’ document, indicates that the program saves images “every five minutes from the users’ feeds” in order to select “useful images for ‘mugshots’ or even for face recognition by assessing the angle of the face.”
“The best images,” the faceless analyst adds helpfully, “are ones where the person is facing the camera with their face upright.”
Are we supposed to believe that jihadis planning terror attacks are using Yahoo webcam, showing their upright faces, yielding useful information that can only be discovered through this (regrettable process of) sorting through 1.8 million users’ yahoo webcams over six months? How many terrorist needles been found under haystacks of online pubes?
Is it not equally likely that such data collection is designed to contain dissent, through blackmail? There have been plausible reports about journalists censoring themselves out of fear that the security apparatus might fuck with them—as they have fucked with Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda, and others. Despite the embarrassment of the revelations, exposing the Stasi-like National Security State, that state finds a silver lining in the NSA scandal. People knowing that they are mercilessly monitored, in every aspect of their electronic communications, and perhaps feeling anxious that their private details be accessed and used by who knows whom, may well clam up out of fear. We should not let that happen.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, referring to Snowden, tells the Daily Beast:
“Maybe if I had I’d understand him better because I have trouble understanding what he did or what he’d do. From my standpoint, the damage he’s done—I could almost accept it or understand it if this were simply about his concerns about so-called domestic surveillance programs. But what he did, what he took, what he has exposed, goes way, way, way beyond the so-called domestic surveillance programs.”
Personally, I have no trouble understanding Clapper’s statement.
* He wants to depict Snowden’s actions as puzzling. He wants people to “have trouble understanding” what he did. He wants to depict Snowden as a psychological puzzle, rather than an ethically driven whistle-blower. He wants the people of the world to just accept the fact that (to protect them) the USA—which he regards as the global moral paradigm in the wake of its wars on Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan—must monitor them to the extent technology allows, to keep us all safe. He wants us to find it baffling that a person in this day and age cares about something as trite as the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
* He wants to downplay the domestic surveillance programs, even denying that they deserve that description.
* He wants to make the foreign surveillance programs (which are supposedly beyond reproof, since they don’t violate the Constitution and are designed to protect our “security”) the primary victim of Snowden’s revelations, thus depicting Snowden as mainly an aider and abettor of “America’s enemies” rather than a heroic whistle-blower.
But to these points, the rational mind responds:
Only someone remote from reality and mass sensibilities (in this country and globally) would find it odd that someone aware of the vast scope of domestic surveillance would be appalled and feel obliged to inform the world. Does Clapper “have trouble understanding” that the Germans are enraged at Washington’s cavalier response to Berlin’s protests about the violation of German leaders’ privacy, and are demanding a “serious” U.S. discussion of the issue? Does he realize that people and businesses everywhere are shunning U.S. web servers, viewing them as extensions of the state apparatus that brought us all a long sequence of wars based on manipulated intelligence?
A state that has no shame, not only about spying (which it says is universal, normal, blah blah blah) but about using information it obtains through spying to manipulate public opinion to acquire temporary popular support for wars that invariably, a little down the road, are shown to be based on lies.
The domestic surveillance operations are just that. The maintenance of the mind-bogglingly massive records of telephone and computer activity allow tens of thousands of “analysts” using NSA’s “XKeyscore” to (as Snowden put it in a recent interview with North German Broadcasting) ”read anyone’s email in the world. Anybody you’ve got email address for, any website you can watch traffic to and from it, any computer that an individual sits at you can watch it, any laptop that you’re tracking you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world.” Obama’s insistence that the NSA “is not listening in on your calls” is a more egregious lie than his assertion that nobody would lose their current medical insurance under Obamacare.
The programs that Snowden has exposed, that go “way, way beyond” domestic spying include bugging the communications of German chancellors Schroeder and Markel, the Pope, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, EU trade institutions, a law firm representing the government of Indonesia on trade issues, the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference, etc.
That is to say, they have nothing to do with “terrorism,” or “protecting” normal people in this country or anywhere. They are about “total information” for somebody, but certainly not for us. It is info for the 1%—or a fraction of that piddling pool of humanity that dabbles drunkenly in regime change and related forms of meta-porn. The intimate body parts of this beast should be exposed by anyone with knowledge and a little courage.
“We will never ever be able to guarantee that there will not be an Edward Snowden or another Chelsea Manning,” Clapper complained last month, “because this is a large enterprise composed of human beings with all their idiosyncrasies.”
May there be two, three, many Snowdens, with their idiosyncratic opposition to things normal people find utterly wrong.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org