After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington during September 2001, Western security organizations started to push for funding so that they could monitor (and in some cases manipulate) use of the internet. The internet was correctly identified as a communicative hub for all sorts of activities – both legal and illegal – that governments wanted to keep tabs on. Unfortunately, people planning malicious actions are not the only people surveilled by organizations like the National Security Agency and GCHQ. Instead, under the guise of national security, security organizations gained widespread powers allowing them to surveil ordinary people.
The moral panic created during the start of the war on terror provided the perfect excuse for agencies to ramp up their efforts to master the internet. Several high profile and extremely far-reaching programs have come to light in recent years. Each of them is terrifying or comforting in equal measure depending on how you see it. This article will only go into programs run from Britain and the USA. Plenty of other nations, like Russia and China, have conducted similar operations.
PRISM is one of the most controversial mass surveillance programs that was uncovered thanks to the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Concocted and conducted by the National Security Agency, PRIMS was a wide reaching attempt to compel large companies into giving customer data to the agency. It specifically targeted Google and Facebook – two sites that hold billions of people’s private data. If you are asking yourself ‘do I need a VPN?’, the existence of the PRISM program should answer your question with a resounding ‘yes’.
Operation optic nerve was conducted by GCHQ with the help of the National Security Agency. It gave operatives the ability to view the feeds of all webcams connected to the Yahoo Chat service. 1.8 Million accounts were effected. The program took 1 still image every 5 minutes per user. Millions of the images collected were of a sexual nature. You can’t help feeling a little bit uneasy staring into your camera lens and not knowing who might be looking back at you from an office in the home counties or Washington DC. Yahoo is no longer a popular webcam service, but modern video conferencing services may be just as vulnerable to interference.
Operation socialist was far from being socially minded. The operation was conducted by the British secret intelligence service GCHQ, which is based in Cheltenham, England. It targeted Belgacom, one of Belgium’s biggest telecoms and internet service providers with incredibly advanced malware.
The malware potentially allowed British agents to monitor huge amounts of online data produced in Belgium and across the world with the telecom company’s partners. Belgacom noticed irregularities in 2012, but the role of GCHQ in the attack was not immediately obvious. When the Snowden papers were released, the role of the British agency was confirmed. State sponsored hacking occurs all over the world, but the fact the British hacked another country’s telecommunications infrastructure should be alarming.