A report that Britain's spy agency GCHQ has snooped on and stored webcam images from millions of Yahoo users has potential dangers for Kinect owners. The surveillance agency has been evaulating using Kinect's camera to spy on its owners as well.
The report about the snooping by the U.K. newspaper The Guardian was based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden. It found that, "Britain's surveillance agency GCHQ, with aid from the US National Security Agency, intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing."
The program, called Optic Nerve, is apparently a massive one, the newspaper found:
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.
It's not clear whether the images and information were shared with the NSA. But The Guardian reported:
Optic Nerve was based on collecting information from GCHQ's huge network of internet cable taps, which was then processed and fed into systems provided by the NSA. Webcam information was fed into NSA's XKeyscore search tool, and NSA research was used to build the tool which identified Yahoo's webcam traffic.
Also not clear is whether webcam images from other services, such as Google Hangouts and Skype, were part of the British spy agency's snooping.
However, what is clear is that the agency has been considering using Kinect's camera to spy on people. The Guardian reports:
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.
There's no word as to whether such a Kinect program has gone into effect
Microsoft told the New York Times that it had not heard about any attempt to use Kinect for spying, and said to the newspaper:
"However, we're concerned about any reports of governments surreptitiously collecting private customer data. That's why in December we initiated a broad effort to expand encryption across our services and are advocating for legal reforms."
One of the few comical parts of The Guardian's report is that one GCHQ document said that between 3 and 11 percent of the Yahoo images it captured contained sexual content. The GCHQ document noted:
"It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person."
Shocking! Who knew such a thing was going on? The agency clearly was interested in this "surprising" activity, and so did an analysis of it, finding that 7.1 percent of the images contained "undesirable nudity." The difference between "undesirable" nudity and "desirable" nudity was left unclear.
Joking aside, what GCHQ did and is still doing in using webcams to snoop on people, and what the NSA might have done and might still be doing, clearly violates any moral standards of decency and should be illegal. The revelation is just one more example of why Snowden should be treated as a hero, not a criminal.