News that the UK government spied on millions of Yahoo webcam users has been met with shock and outrage. One MP said the government had "exceeded even the worst Orwellian nightmares".
The news broke on Thursday when documents leaked by Edward Snowden were published by the Guardian, showing that a campaign called Optic Nerve had taken images of web users without their knowledge over at least a two-year period.
Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said it was “as creepy as it gets” and called the campaign an “indiscriminate and intimate intrusion on people’s privacy”.
“We have CCTV on our streets and now we have GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters] in our homes. It is becoming increasingly obvious how badly the law has failed to keep pace with technology and how urgently we need a comprehensive review of surveillance law and oversight structures,” he said.
“As more people buy technology with built-in cameras, from Xbox Kinect to laptops and smart TVs, we need to be sure that the law does not allow for them to be routinely accessed when there is no suspicion of any wrongdoing. Orwell’s 1984 was supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual.”
MPs also voiced their concern following the news, with Conservative MP David Davis, saying the activity "exceeded even the worst Orwellian nightmares”.
“1.8m people were unknowingly filmed in just one six-month period. Filmed in their own homes in an absolute invasion of their privacy. Even in 1984 the citizen was aware that they were being watched. The technology is insidious in the extreme. GCHQ has legally created a vast database of ‘mug shots’ of mostly innocent people."
Despite the outrage the GCHQ has always maintained it acted within the law. In response, Davis said there could therefore be no clearer example of the need for urgent and drastic action to overhaul the current surveillance laws in the UK.
“We will no doubt be told that GCHQ has operated within the law. If so, that raises two questions. Firstly, is it not now clear that our laws have been so badly drafted that they provide no protection at all for the innocent citizen?
“Secondly, what on earth were the ministers, GCHQ bosses, and the oversight commissioner thinking when they allowed this grotesquely disproportionate invasion of privacy?”
On the other side of the pond, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was equally appalled by the revelations and questioned how involved its National Security Agency (NSA) was in the project.
Alex Abdo, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said: “This is a truly shocking revelation that underscores the importance of the debate on privacy now taking place and the reforms being considered.
“This report also raises troubling questions about the NSA’s complicity in what is a massive and unprecedented violation of privacy. We need to know more about what the NSA knew, and what role it played.”
The documents are the latest and perhaps the most shocking to date, since Snowden first leaked government spying files to the public in June 2013.
Other major incidents that have come to light since last summer include the monitoring of world leaders' phones and the tapping of global telecoms networks to siphon off data.
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