British surveillance agency GCHQ, with the help of the National Security Agency, intercepted and stored webcam imagery from Yahoo chat users in bulk from 2008 to 2012 according to a report by the Guardian.
Secret documents dating between 2008 and 2010 reveal that the GCHQ collected stills from the video chats of millions of users, including U.S. citizens and individuals who weren’t intelligence targets, in a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve. The documents, leaked by Edward Snowden, also reveal that between 3% and 11% of the collected imagery contain visually explicit stills from sex chats and that the GCHQ has struggled to keep such imagery away from the eyes of its staff.
In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the Guardian reports, the agency collected webcam imagery from over 1.8 million Yahoo users around the world. There are no restrictions under UK law that require British analysts to file individual warrants before accessing Americans’ images, and safeguards protecting legal searches from accessing the personal data of anyone who is not a citizen of the British Isles are nonexistent.
According to the documents Optic Nerve began as a prototype in 2008 and was still active in 2012, indicating the spying has gone on for at least four years.
Optic Nerve saved one image only every five minutes from Yahoo chats in part to comply with human rights legislation and also to avoid overloading GCHQ’s servers. These images were then fed into systems provided by the NSA, including the XKeyscore search tool. The GCHQ was supposedly using Yahoo webcam stills to create a database of virtual “mugshots” of previously arrested individuals.
Yahoo is furious with the news and has denied any prior knowledge of Optic Nerve. When approached by the Guardian, a Yahoo spokeswoman called the program a breach of privacy and referred to the principles laid out by the Reform Government Surveillance Group, of which Yahoo is a part:
This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable, and we strongly call on the world’s governments to reform surveillance law consistent with the principles we outlined in December
As shocking as this news is, it’s also unsurprising. Perhaps we should simply expects that governments around the world are surveilling our every move.
What illegal surveillance program do you think will be unveiled next?
Image by David Burillo