Private Webcam Images of Nearly 2 Million Global Yahoo Users Intercepted by British Spy Agency with NSA Help

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Yahoo users who used their webcams to communicate with others, including transmissions of a sexual nature, may have had their images captured—and ogled—by British spies.


With the help of the National Security Agency (NSA), Britain’s surveillance agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), intercepted and stored millions of webcam images belonging to Yahoo customers not suspected of terrorism or other threats.


The secret program, codenamed Optic Nerve, collected the images from 2008 to 2010, and possibly beyond. Classified documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden to The Guardian indicated the collection occurred between 2008 and 2010. However, another document obtained by the newspaper showed Optic Nerve was in operation as late as 2012.


The vacuuming of private images was vast in scope and substantial in quantity: during just one six-month span in 2008, the program intercepted webcam transmissions belonging to 1.8 million Yahoo users worldwide.


Images of American citizens who engage in webcam conversations via Yahoo were among those captured and stored by the government spy agency, since “there are no restrictions under UK law to prevent Americans’ images being accessed by British analysts without an individual warrant,” wrote The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman and James Ball.


Many of the images contained nudity (somewhere between 3% and 11%), which not only proved irrelevant to GCHQ’s mission, but also distracting as far as keeping employees focused on more serious work.


“Unfortunately…it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,” one document states. “Also, the fact that the Yahoo software allows more than one person to view a webcam stream without necessarily sending a reciprocal stream means that it appears sometimes to be used for broadcasting pornography.”


An internal GCHQ guide alerted its staff that they would be viewing nudity displayed by many global Yahoo users because the agency has “no perfect ability to censor material which may be offensive.”


Yahoo claims it was not aware of the webcam interception until The Guardian broached the subject.


“We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity,” an unidentified company spokeswoman said. “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.”


She added: ‘We are committed to preserving our users’ trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services.”


The NSA documents indicated that the program was developed to facilitate experimentation with facial recognition software, as well as for other surveillance purposes.


GCHQ reportedly did not store complete webcam chats, in part to avoid overloading its servers. Instead, the program captured still images (one every five minutes during a chat).


The spy agency insisted that all of its activities are “authorized [and] necessary.” It is not known if the NSA was given access to all of the hijacked Yahoo images, although GCHQ policy documents are said to regularly be made available to NSA analysts.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Yahoo Webcam Images from Millions of Users Intercepted by GCHQ (by Spencer Ackerman and James Ball, The Guardian)

Americans among Those Monitored in GCHQ and NSA Operations against WikiLeaks Website (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

NSA and GCHQ Infiltrated Online Games to Hunt Terrorists (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

NSA Teamed with U.K. and Tech Companies to Override Global Internet Privacy (by Danny Biederman and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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