UK spy agency's Optic Nerve monitored millions of Yahoo webcam chats, lots with 'undesirable nudity'


Many of the webcam images harvested by the GCHQ were sexually explicit.



Another day, another revelation from the huge stockpile of documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

And this time Yahoo video chat users were — or perhaps still are — the target.

British surveillance agency GCHQ, with help from NSA, collected and stored images of webcam chats of millions of people around the world — including those not suspected of wrongdoing, the Guardian reported Thursday.

And before you ask, yes, the material included lots of sexually explicit stuff.

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The surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve was in operation from 2008 until at least 2012, the newspaper said, citing an internal GCHQ wiki page.

Optic Nerve stored a still image from a webcam chat every five minutes, although the documents show the spy agency hoped to harvest images at a faster rate.

Users were “unselected,” which the Guardian said was spy speak for “bulk rather than targeted collection.”

The images were then fed to the NSA.

In one six-month period GCHQ scooped up images from 1.8 million accounts. Between 3-11 percent of all the images collected contained “undesirable nudity.”

Yahoo users were targeted because the Internet company’s webcam “is known to be used by GCHQ targets.”

The documents show that GSHQ used the surveillance system to test facial recognition technology that could potentially track down existing targets using multiple or anonymous IDs, and find new ones.

Not surprisingly, Yahoo was outraged when contacted by the Guardian about the webcam interception.

It denied any knowledge of the program and — assuming the documents are correct — accused the spy agencies of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy.”

The GCHQ responded to the revelations with a standard statement:

"All of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorized, 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."

Earlier documents leaked by Snowden showed the NSA mined audio, video, photographs, emails, Skype chats, documents and connection logs from the servers of nine Internet companies, including Yahoo, as part of a government program called PRISM.

This isn't the first time the NSA and GCHQ have allegedly collaborated on surveillance. Documents from Snowden earlier claimed that the NSA secretly gave GCHQ around $160 million over the last three years.

David Ormand, who served as the British spy agency's director from 1996 to 1997, didn't confirm the claim, but said the United States and Britain did have a mutually beneficial relationship.

"We have the brains; they have the money," Ormand told the BBC last year. "It's a collaboration that's worked very well." 

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