Privacy SOS

Is NSA watching you as you wait for the train? On hacking into live video streams

One of the hundreds of surveillance cameras in Boston's regional camera network.

Ever since June 2013, when the Snowden leaks began pouring out into headlines worldwide, I’ve wondered: If the NSA taps the cables that connect the world, can the agency snoop on the real-time, IP-based video surveillance feeds that dot our urban landscapes like so many privacy violating manholes?

Put another way, since there appears to be very little the NSA cannot hack, how difficult would it be for the agency’s computer nerds to break into the encrypted video connections that cities and private businesses use to monitor their surveillance camera feeds?

Today’s bombshell reporting in Der Spiegel provides a short and sweet answer to my question: Of course the NSA can do that.

Describing the “Computer Network Exploitation” operations of the agency’s special Tailored Access Operations (TAO) wing, the journalists write:

As a first step, TAO penetrated the target officials' email accounts, a relatively simple job. Next, they infiltrated the entire network and began capturing data.

Soon the NSA spies had knowledge of the agency's servers, including IP addresses, computers used for email traffic and individual addresses of diverse employees. They also obtained diagrams of the security agencies' structures, including video surveillance.

The journalists were describing the NSA’s infiltration of a Mexican government network, but the agency could just as easily — if not far more easily — hack into, say, the New York City Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, an enormous physical surveillance effort run cooperatively by the NYPD and various Wall Street banks. The network hosts more than three thousand surveillance camera feeds, from both public and private sources.

And the government’s reach presumably doesn’t end at the public street. There’s no reason to believe that the NSA couldn’t also hack into the networked surveillance cameras that show what goes on inside of highly protected, private facilities, such as pharmaceutical companies or weapons manufacturers.

In a networked world, nothing is secret from the US government — not even your ‘private’ surveillance camera network. The implications for local government agencies, which nationwide are setting up regional networked surveillance cameras with help from DHS grants, couldn't be clearer: You don't control access to your data any more than lowly citizens control access to their email accounts.

City councils and private entities alike should take note. Any physical surveillance you authorize on your public streets or private hallways may very well end up monitored from a secretive bunker at Fort Meade.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.