In yet another shocking revelation about digital espionage (though I can’t honestly say I’m shocked), The Guardian reports that British surveillance organization GCHQ ran a program between 2008 and 2012 that collected images from Yahoo chat users’ webcams. The program managed to collect a high volume of webcam imagery, including sex chat content, from over 1.8 million global Yahoo users in a six month period in 2008, according to the report.
It’s hard to say whether this is the worst violation of privacy revealed under leaked documents detailing government espionage of digital sources, but capturing nude and sexual images from unsuspecting users not aware they’re being targeted, and not being targeted for any particular reason, is definitely up there. The program, dubbed ‘Optic Nerve,’ is detailed in GCHQ files that span between 2008 and 2010 leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and also reveal that the NSA benefited from the program, and its research helped identify Yahoo webcam network activity, The Guardian reports.
The documents show that between 3 and 11 percent of all imagery collected contained so-called “undesirable nudity,” and that filtering out said material posed a problem. Tools designed to remove images based on how much flesh was visible were throwing out to many non-nude face shots, so instead a system was implemented to ignore images that contained no recognizable faces.
Imagery was saved from webcam feeds only once every five minutes, in an effort to avoid violating human rights laws and to minimize server load (though I suspect the latter was a bigger concern). The GCHQ, however, isn’t technically able to make sure no UK or US resident images are collected and stored, and UK law doesn’t prevent specific imagery of individuals from partner nations including Australia, New Zealand and Canada being accessed by individual analysts at any time.
Yahoo strongly denies any prior knowledge of the existence of the program, according to The Guardian, and in fact was characterized as being outraged with the fresh reports of violations of its customers’ privacy. Yahoo and other tech companies have called for more transparency from government surveillance agencies about their espionage activities.