Theirs is a pitiful lot, the agents who invade the privacy of millions of people, stealing images that we exchange through webcams, only to find that what is on the minds of many is sex. It is as if the employees of Britain’s GCHQ surveillance agency and America’s NSA don’t already have enough on their hands with conversations between friends or spouses, the advertisements, the mothers urging children to dress warmly, the businessmen discussing strategy, the terrorists exchanging secret messages, the birthday parties and other family moments – now they are forced to dirty their hands (not to mention their clear eyes and pure minds), wallowing in the trough of human lust and exhibitionism.
The agencies’ disappointment was revealed on Thursday by the Guardian as part of its ongoing investigation into the range and depth of the global surveillance network. The latest report concerned still images collected from Yahoo webcam chats between 2008 and 2010. Over a six-month period in 2008 alone, the newspaper noted, GCHQ collected imagery from webcam interchanges between 1.8 million people globally. The British agency “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 Guardian reported.
We should be shocked but we are not. For months we have been learning, bit by bit, how our whole planet is tangled in a web of surveillance, how no one is excluded. The new element is the moral unease and sensitivity of the agents when they have to face what people do when they think they are alone with those in whom they are interested. “Unfortunately,” one document notes, “there are issues with undesirable images within the data. It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.” These “undesirable images” account for 3-11 percent of the material.
GHCQ, worried about how to protect its analysts from such shame, has employed software that excludes images of flesh if it is not part of a face. A circular also warned employees that “the dissemination of offensive material is a disciplinary offense.”
Despite whatever successes they have had in their pursuit of terrorists, our society owes a debt of gratitude to those who expend their spirit confronting “lust in action,” as Shakespeare put it in a sonnet on the power of desire. What would psychoanalysts say? They wander in a world of perpetual lust and fear, of frustration, narcissism, joy, exhibitionism, night terrors, hope, orgasm and death. This is the heart of humanity. It is neither good nor bad. It just is. Those who study humans know this already.
When agents invade our homes and loot our images, it is they who should be ashamed of their actions – not we for our desires.