Our most intimate communications are in the hands of intelligence agencies.
Today our relationships take place more and more online and via mobile devices. We text each other from work, we share links over social media, and we use video chat to catch up when lovers travel far from home. But how private are these communications?
The question is important since couples often extend their sex lives into the virtual realm. According to a 2017 DrEd survey, between 20% and 40% of men and women in both the US and Europe have sent a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves. Most of the time the recipient was a long-term partner or spouse.
People who engage in such intimate exchanges like to think no one is watching. In the age of electronic surveillance, however, that’s not always the case. What’s particularly worrying are disclosures that global intelligence agencies have access to our private data.
So, can someone sitting at a desk somewhere right now see your nudes? And how?
What we know
In an interview for Last Week Tonight, John Oliver asked NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: Who can see my junk? It seems like an absurd question. What interest would intelligence agencies have in our personal messages? But he was right to worry.
The last 15 years have been marked by a series of public scandals over mass surveillance. In 2005, The New York Times blew the lid on an NSA program to eavesdrop on Americans’ phone calls, and a year later USA Today exposed their bulk collection of US phone records. The agency was also scooping up information on Internet usage.
But as it turned out, this was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2013, documents leaked by Snowden revealed just how much of our electronic information agencies monitor and retain.
Under a program called Prism, at least nine US companies, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, pass on user communications to the NSA. That means private chats, emails, photos, videos, and browsing histories. There are restrictions on targeting US persons, but the data of ordinary Americans is often hoovered up through “incidental collection.”
Through upstream collection, intelligence agencies also suck our data directly out of the fiber optic cables, thanks to deals with cable companies, or even the use of submarines. These methods feed massive databases, which are searchable using an engine called xkeyscore that allows analysts to see pretty much all of a user’s online activity.
Collect them all
Now imagine you want to have an sexy conversation with a lover. What kinds of communications aren’t subject to bulk or incidental collection?
A lot of couples communicate online, through Facebook Messenger, for example, or Gmail. It’s disturbing to think that someone could potentially read our communications. But it’s true.
Online messaging has been compromised by programs like Prism and upstream collection. According to Snowden, even if you are an American citizen in the US, your communications are often swept up into a database, because much of it passes through data centers outside US borders.
Phone calls might be more private. The NSA’s bulk collection of domestic phone records has been curtailed, and in 2016 it “only” collected 151 million records of US calls. Communications between US persons and foreigners can be wiretapped for up to a week without a warrant, but as far as we know, the content of calls has only ever been collected in bulk for a few countries.
How about text messages? According to a leaked 2011 NSA presentation, a program called DISHFIRE collected 200 million texts daily. Communications from US numbers were “minimized,” but it included a “large volume of unselected SMS traffic,” and allowed analysts to read your messages and see photos and videos.
As for webcams, there’s a risk there too. As part of a program called Optic Nerve, the GCHQ, the NSA’s British counterpart, took millions of random screenshots of people using Yahoo! Webcams. In thousands of them, users were naked.
Thanks to close collaboration with Microsoft, the NSA can also watch and collect video calls from Skype. (Then again, the NSA’s elite hacking unit Tailored Access Operations can also just use malware to access your webcams and microphones directly). Smile for the camera.
In interviews, Snowden has claimed it’s normal for NSA operatives to pass around naked pictures: “You see naked pictures all of the time.”
Is anything private anymore?
After reading this, you might be asking: how can I keep my communications private?
Basically, you can’t. Or at least, it’s become extremely difficult.
As our use of digital media to connect with loved ones is grows stronger, the issue of privacy becomes more urgent. To meet demand, new technologies are seeking to bring couples separated by distance ever closer. For example, teledildonic devices allow lovers to stimulate each other even when apart. However, Pen Test Partners has shown that Internet-connect adult devices that rely on Bluetooth to pair with computers can sometimes be geo-located, and even controlled, through a process called “screwdriving.”
Couples can also meet up in online and virtual worlds. But leaked documents reveal that the NSA has used undercover agents to spy on online gaming communities, including Second Life and World of Warcraft. In many online worlds, people sign up for the freedom of being someone else, or trying new things.
Do we want governments to store these kinds of information? Mind you, just because your data has been obtained as part of a bulk collection program doesn’t mean it’s actually been looked at. But it does mean that, in a figurative sense, it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere, to be flipped through or not at someone else’s discretion.
Check back here soon for our guide to programs that claim to offer privacy, from both intelligence agencies and hackers, in our follow-up article.
Image sources: Pro Juventute, Marco Verch, Anne Marit (Marit) Jarvinen