British spy agency considered using Xbox 360 Kinect for surveillance

New documents leaked by Edward Snowden show that British intelligence agency identified Kinect as a potential surveillance tool; Microsoft says it's never heard of the program.

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Could your Xbox Kinect camera be spying on you? According to secret documents provided by Edward Snowden to The Guardian, as part of Britain's "Optic Nerve" program, the country's top intelligence agency--Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)--identified the Xbox 360's Kinect as a potential surveillance tool.

"One presentation discusses with interest the potential and capabilities of the Xbox 360's Kinect camera, saying it generated 'fairly normal webcam traffic' and was being evaluated as part of a wider program," The Guardian explains.

Importantly, it's unclear if any actual snooping was ever conducted via Kinect. This is not the first time Microsoft's name has come up in spying reports, as leaked documents from January showed that National Security Agency (NSA) and GCHQ agents scooped up user data from Xbox Live (as well as World of Warcraft and Second Life).

Microsoft has previously denied having any knowledge of spying activity through Xbox Live, and the company reiterated that stance in a statement to GameSpot on today's report.

"Microsoft has never heard of this program. However, we're concerned about any reports of governments surreptitiously collecting private customer data," a company representative said. "That's why in December we initiated a broad effort to expand encryption across our services and are advocating for legal reforms."

For its part, the GCHQ says its initiatives are always carried out legally.

"All of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee," the group said.

The Optic Nerve program began in 2008 and was still active in 2012, though it's unclear if the GCHQ or NSA is also considering the Xbox One's Kinect--which captures in full 1080p and has a wider field of view--as a potential surveillance tool. Microsoft product planning director Albert Penello told GameSpot in September that capturing personal data via Kinect on Xbox One is "somewhat implausible," technologically speaking. He said people who are concerned about potential spying can simply unplug their Kinect.

The Guardian's report today primarily focused on the GCHQ's widespread collection of video webcam images from millions of Yahoo users--regardless of whether or not they were suspected of participating in illegal activity.

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