Since the Bill of Rights came into effect in 1791, Americans have had certain rights delineated in the Amendments and also certain protections coming from restrictions placed on the government. Among these restrictions is the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure. The Amendment requires the government to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before a search of a someone’s property can be made. The interpretation of the Amendment has varied over the last two centuries, slightly changing the protections that courts will enforce, but the overall tenor of the bill has remained the same. But does the protection granted citizens in the Fourth Amendment apply when foreign agents conduct the search? Apparently not.
The Guardian in the UK has reported that Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ (Government Communication Headquarters) has been intercepting and storing webcam images from millions of internet users. The relationship between the GCHQ and U.S. intelligence began long before computer technology was around but has evolved over decades to allow for surveillance of all the modern forms of communication, to include webcams.
The Guardian – 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, secret documents reveal.
GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.
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”.
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.
The system, eerily reminiscent of the telescreens evoked in George Orwell’s 1984, was used for experiments in automated facial recognition, to monitor GCHQ’s existing targets, and to discover new targets of interest. Such searches could be used to try to find terror suspects or criminals making use of multiple, anonymous user IDs.
Aside from the fact that British intelligence is spying on Americans with the cooperation of the NSA, a key phrase to note in this article is “to discover new targets of interest.” Fishing expeditions. Keeping tabs on people suspected of crimes or terrorist activity is one thing, but spying on innocent Americans via their webcams, just to find new and interesting targets is one of the worst forms of privacy invasion. Are you a Skype user? British intelligence probably has images stored from your video chats.
Something else to note here is that the cooperation between GCHQ and the NSA is nothing new and is certainly not limited to intercepting people’s webcam conversations. American and British intelligence agencies have been conspiring, er, cooperating with each other to get around American and British laws against spying on their own populations since Franklin Roosevelt was president. After reading the article in The Guardian it all sounded too familiar. I found a section in an old book I have called The Secret War Against the Jews by John Loftus and Mark Aarons, copyright 1994. On pages 187-193 the authors detail the beginnings of the cooperation between GCHQ and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. J. Edgar Hoover held the belief that all Zionists were potential communist terrorists and decided to help British intelligence spy on certain Americans. Communications were intercepted as part of an operation called Operation Shamrock, which led to Hoover and Defense Secretary James Forrestal developing a plan that had the British bugging Americans on U.S. soil and the Americans intercepting the conversations of British citizens on British soil. This way both sides could truthfully claim they weren’t spying on their own citizens. After the NSA was created in 1952, their headquarters became the chief British espionage base in the U.S., according to several “old spies” who spoke to Loftus and Aarons.
The Secret War Against the Jews – Page 189 – “Here is how the game is played. The British liaison officer at Fort Meade types the target list of “suspects” into the American computer. The NSA computer sorts through its wiretaps and gives the British officer the recording of any American citizen he wants. Since it is technically a British target of surveillance, no American search warrant is necessary. The British officer then simply hands the results over to his American liaison officer.
Of course, the Americans provide the same service to the British in return. All international and domestic telephone calls in Great Britain are run through the NSA’s station in the British Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) at Menwith Hill, which allows the American liaison officer to spy on any British citizen without a warrant. According to our sources, this duplicitous, reciprocal arrangement disguises the most massive, and illegal, domestic espionage apparatus in the world. Not even the Soviets could touch the U.K.-U.S. intercept technology.
According to a former special agent of the FBI, the you-spy-on-mine, I’ll-spy-on-yours deal has been extended to other Western partners, particularly Canada and Australia.
The Fourth Amendment may be an impediment to Americans spying on Americans, but the Brits, the Canadians and the Australians are under no obligation to honor our constitutional rights. And American intelligence agencies are under no obligation to honor the privacy rights of Brits, Canadians or Australians. So everybody watches the other country’s citizens, listens to their phone calls, reads their emails, intercepts text messages and webcam videos. Privacy is becoming an antiquated notion. Perhaps one day Orwell’s telescreens will be in our homes and the government will make no pretense about surveilling the citizens. Fourth Amendment? Who needs it. It’s a Brit watching you so it’s legal. And if you’re reading this on a laptop with a built-in webcam, be sure to wave hello. They’ll see it at Menwith Hill.