Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

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Gordon Campbell on the latest NSA spy scandal, and the Pike River pay-off

February 28th, 2014

Once again, the “Five Eyes” intelligence network (to which New Zealand belongs ) has been caught out in a privacy outrage. According to this morning’s Guardian, the British spy agency GCHQ has been secretly recording the images from the Yahoo webcam communications of Internet users not suspected of any wrongdoing, storing them, and then handing them over to the US National Security Agency(NSA).

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. Yahoo reacted furiously to the webcam interception when approached by the Guardian. The company denied any prior knowledge of the program, accusing the agencies of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy“.

If not for the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, this so-called “Optic Nerve” surveillance system would have gone undetected. It worked like this:

Rather than collecting webcam chats in their entirety, the program saved one image every five minutes from the users’ feeds, partly to comply with human rights legislation, and also to avoid overloading GCHQ’s servers. The documents describe these users as “unselected” – intelligence agency parlance for bulk rather than targeted collection.

…Analysts were shown the faces of people with similar usernames to surveillance targets, potentially dragging in large numbers of innocent people. One document tells agency staff they were allowed to display “webcam images associated with similar Yahoo identifiers to your known target”.

Facial recognition technology would also be utilised, according to the system’s documentation: “[I]f you search for similar IDs to your target, you will be able to request automatic comparison of the face in the similar IDs to those in your target’s ID”. In other words, the Optic Nerve procedures had the capacity to bring entirely innocent people into the security net, purely because their faces resemble suspects, or because their names sound like them. The ripple effects from the potential mis-identifications on the travel and employment prospects of those involved is, of course, not known. Legal protections are minimal, let alone the ability to seek compensation. As the Guardian points out, the few legal protections available to British citizens do not apply to New Zealanders caught up in the Optic Nerve programme:

Programs like Optic Nerve, which collect information in bulk from largely anonymous user IDs, are unable to filter out information from UK or US citizens. Unlike the NSA, GCHQ is not required by UK law to “minimize”, or remove, domestic citizens’ information from its databases. However, additional legal authorisations are required before analysts can search for the data of individuals likely to be in the British Isles at the time of the search. There are no such legal safeguards for searches on people believed to be in the US or the other allied “Five Eyes” nations – Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Have a nice day. And if you’re using Yahoo webcam – or quite possibly, any other webcam – do remember to smile for the NSA.

Justice For Sale
RNZ had a news headline on their website this morning – “No Deal Done On Pike Payout, Says Key” – that looks like an instant Tui billboard. Reduced to its bare essentials, the accompanying story goes like this: last October, the lawyer for the disgraced Pike River boss Peter Whittal wrote to the government offering $3.4 million to the victims’ families, on condition that the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment did not proceed with the 12 charges that Whittal originally faced. Hey presto. In December, those charges were dropped. That looks like a pretty clear demonstration of just how much the government thinks that justice for the Pike River families is worth, right? But no, Prime Minister John Key spins the story this way:

Mr Key was asked whether a deal had been done: “My understanding is no, it was an unsolicited letter they looked at lots of different factors but in the end, they could have spent millions and millions and millions with the lawyers and actually got nowhere or practically make a payment to the families which made more sense.”

Yes, it’s a win/win for all concerned. Whittal escapes being charged. The failings (a) of the regulatory agencies responsible for worker safety and (b) of the investigators bringing the charges against Whittal are concealed from any further humiliating exposure in the public spotlight. Who wants to see the ineptness of officials – or of prosecutors – exposed in open court? And crucially, John Key is spared further embarrassment from the gap between what he initially promised the Pike River families, and what has transpired. Close to an election, Pike River was never going to be allowed to muddy the image of our Likeable Leader. Oh, and some money got thrown at the families, to keep them quiet. Nothing to see here, move on.


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