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Thursday, February 27, 2014 

The nerve of GCHQ.

It makes me look only slightly daft that the day after I wonder if the Graun and the rest of the media have been self-censoring over the latest Snowden document, the paper goes and exposes yet another massively invasive GCHQ programme. This time it turns out everyone's favourite Cheltenham based spooks were (and no doubt still are) tapping into Yahoo's webcam service, collecting a grabbed image from the streams of those targeted every 5 minutes.  Staggeringly, 1.8 million accounts were accessed during a six-month period in 2008, for what seems more than anything to have been an exercise in testing facial recognition software.  The program was, brazenly, it must be said, called Optic Nerve.

Just how many terrorist suspects or criminals who use Yahoo Webcam had their chats intercepted we can't know.  What anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the internet does know is while now used for Skype and so on, webcams were principally bought to begin with by teenagers who chatted online.  GCHQ though professes itself to be shocked, shocked that from a sample of 323 users whose streams were intercepted, each of which had just 1 image from those collected examined, 7.1% contained "undesirable nudity".  In what has to be an example of massive understatement, GCHQ considers this to be a surprise.  I mean, who knew people used webcams to do such things?

Don't worry though, GCHQ staff weren't using the Optic Nerve database to exchange amateur porn with each other.  Such "dissemination of offensive material" is a disciplinary offence, and bulk queries were later restricted to just the metadata, lest anyone start building their own personal collection of homegrown nudes.  It seems almost impolite to say, as Jamie has it, but if you're spying on people who aren't specific targets and what you're getting as a result is images of people naked, then images of people naked would seem to be what you're looking to get.  Even more delicate is the fact that as alluded to above, teenagers are likely to still be the main users of a service like Yahoo Webcam.  Let's hope there aren't more people like Geoffrey Prime with the organisation, eh?

According to the government, security services and the High Court, we shouldn't be allowed to know such things have been done in our name.  How do we know Optic Nerve didn't in fact result in the identification of a terrorist who otherwise would have killed people?  How do we know that the facial recognition software won't go on to be hugely important in stopping an attack?  By exposing it those who wish us harm will now know they've been watched and can be watched; as for the millions who had their privacy infringed and potentially their most intimate moments captured, surely it's a small sacrifice to make for security.  Or it could be the ultimate example of the security services doing something purely because they can, caring only for the sensitivities of their staff in having to look at such images, not for the people who had their streams intercepted in bulk.  If there hadn't been enough evidence already of the dubious benefits of mass interception, surely this ought to be the Milly Dowler moment.

P.S. Patricia Hewitt's apology for "getting it wrong" over the Paedophile Information Exchange's links with the National Council for Civil Liberties when she was general secretary back in the 70s looked inevitable after the Graun found a document suggesting that PIE's advice on the age of consent influenced NCCL's lobbying in 1976.  Whether it really did or not is another matter, but as the first real piece of evidence to imply it might have been the case it most definitely brought Hewitt's judgement into question.  Much else still remains murky, and no one has denied that by '76 after Jack Dromey's intervention, even if certain members remained on committees, PIE had mostly been sidelined.  Tom O'Carroll, the then chair of PIE, who doesn't seem to have any reason to lie, says the three never attended the gay rights sub-committee he was on during the late 70s, and that the impression he received was Hewitt, Dromey and Harman were hostile towards PIE even if they didn't make any major moves to expel the organisation.

P.P.S. Nice to see that along with the more obvious mistakes she made while editor of the Sun, Rebekah Brooks admitted she has regrets over her helming of the paper's campaigning on Baby Peter, something she had previously defended in her Hugh Cudlipp lecture.  "Balance went out the window," she said, while it was "cruel, harsh and over the top" to put a photographer outside Sharon Shoesmith's house.  Brooks might also want to privately apologise to Maria Ward, for how commenters were allowed on the Sun's website to tell her to kill herself.  Lastly, worth reflecting that had it not been for the Sun's vociferous campaign, with it demanding "a price to be paid for [Baby Peter's] little life", the taxpayer wouldn't have had to shell out hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation to Shoesmith after Ed Balls acted unlawfully to dismiss her.

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