British spies intercepted and recorded images from the webcams of millions of Yahoo account holders despite having no proof of wrong doing, according to top-secret documents. In one six-month period alone agents collected webcam images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts worldwide, including within the UK. The details are the latest to emerge from documents leaked by former US security contractor Edward Snowden to The Guardian newspaper.
The program used, known as Optic Nerve, was run by GCHQ, the UK’s signals and communications intelligence agency. It intercepted Yahoo webcam chats in huge numbers and saved still images to agency databases. The program began as a prototype in 2008 and was still running in 2012. Yahoo reacted angrily to the revelations, denying any prior knowledge of Optic Nerve and saying it represented “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”. The documents reveal that GCHQ harvested “unselected” webcam images rather than just pursuing pre-determined targets. While agents couldn’t browse the database of images at random, they could conduct searches to find people who looked similar to specified targets. It’s likely that images of many innocent people were viewed by analysts as part of these searches. GCHQ also struggled to deal with the vast quantities of sexually explicit content it intercepted from people’s private webcam chats, the documents show. “Unfortunately, it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,” it stated.
The agency worked on so-called “pornography detectors” to strip out the most sexually explicit content to prevent analysts from seeing it when they searched for targets. GCHQ once again reiterated that all its surveillance work is legal and subject to “rigorous oversight”.
Yahoo’s reaction says it all – this is a new low for the already beleaguered GCHQ. Its latest activities bear a striking resemblance to the telescreens vividly depicted in George Orwell’s novel 1984. This kind of mass surveillance is another blow to the privacy of people in the UK and around the world, with GCHQ explaining in top-secret documents that it has been harvesting webcam images en masse for some time. The freedom of the web is being scandalously abused by security services in the UK and the US. It shouldn’t be allowed to continue.