17 Oct 2014

How your desk is a jackpot for spies…

It has been almost a year-and-a-half since Edward Snowden exposed the secret surveillance regimes of Britain and the US.

The former security contractor’s cache of stolen documents revealed widespread tapping of the internet cables which carry billions of messages and communications around the world. But the release this week of Citizen Four, a documentary about the whistleblower, gives even more insight into how spy agencies are able to intercept communications.

We asked Channel 4 News viewers to send in photographs of their desks to us on Twitter, WhatsApp and Snapchat to see just how vulnerable the average worker is to surveillance. Some pictures have been cropped or redacted to hide personally identifiable information.

Welcome Home


Welcome home indeed WhatsApp user! You might want to keep that banner covering the webcam (A). Like any internet traffic, footage from your webcam is vulnerable to interception, and leaks from Snowden revealed the existence of a programme called Optic Nerve, which gathered webcam images from more than 1.8m Yahoo accounts over a six-month period in 2008.

Double trouble?


@DJone01 two laptops? We’re hoping that second one (B) is an airgapped machine – isolated from the internet, preferably having had its network adapter removed prior to first being switched on (warning: this may invalidate your warranty).

Even then, you may not be safe; hackers can now listen into the sounds your computer makes to crack its security settings.

Landline invasion

2Like many people who contacted us, @ShahidK66 has a landline phone (C). In the documentary Citizen Four, the team interviewing Edward Snowden is interrupted by a phonecall. Snowden reveals that phone conversations are increasingly carried over internet cables, and are therefore vulnerable to interception.

(Bonus points for your use of pen and paper though (D). In the closing scenes of the documentary Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald revert to writing notes on paper and then shredding them by hand).

Blackberry unpicking

10We note you have a “classic” (read: old) Blackberry phone (E), WhatsApp user number two. The Snowden documents show the NSA had some success in intercepting messages from Blackberry devices. You might want to consider an upgrade: if you have a spare £2,000 you could get the souped-up Blackberry reportedly given to Angela Merkel.

Gaming the system

6It seems you keep a Playstation 3 handy (F), WhatsApp user number three  (perhaps for watching all those Friends DVDs). While there’s no evidence that spy agencies targeted Sony’s gaming technology directly, the Snowden leaks have revealed that they entered video games to seek out criminals, and of course, connected consoles send traffic over the internet, which is vulnerable to interception if it’s not encrypted.

Might this be a good time to break out the typewriter hiding behind your monitor (G)? German politicians have admitted acquiring such old-school kit to fend off the risk of hacking.

Under the microscope…

4OK, @mynameisedd, we may struggle with this one…..

That said: Two years ago researchers in Germany discovered that the power usage signatures of televisions could be used to determine which TV programmes they were watching. Perhaps the same trick might work for what looks like a Zeiss Stemi-DV4…?

Follow @geoffwhite247 on Twitter.