Britain’s domestic spying agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has intercepted and stored webcam images from millions of Yahoo users, reports the Guardian.
According to the secret documents revealed by Edward Snowden from NSA and published by the Guardian, GCHQ files dated from 2008 to 2010 explicitly disclose that a program codenamed Optic Nerve piled up still webcam images of Yahoo users in bulk and stored them in databases.
The surveillance agency GCHQ insists that all of its activities are carried out in accordance with UK’s strict legal and policy framework and claims to have triggered this bulk surveillance on Yahoo webcam chat users because “Yahoo webcam is known to be used by GCHQ targets.”
Optic Nerve was one of a series of the agency’s efforts at biometric detection, whether for target recognition or general security.
The documents clearly explained that GCHQ trialed automatic searches based on facial recognition technology, for people resembling the existing GCHQ targets “If you search for similar IDs to your target, you will be able to request automatic comparison of the face in the similar IDs to those in your target’s ID”.
The document estimates that the agency has gathered imagery of more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts, including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications, in just one six-month period in 2008 and up to 11 percent of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested contains “undesirable nudity”.
“A survey was conducted, taking a single image from each of 323 user ids. 23 (7.1 percent) of those images contained undesirable nudity,” read the document.
Yahoo “reacted furiously” denying prior knowledge of the alleged program and strongly condemned the Optic Nerve program. GCHQ has been mired of “a whole new level of violation of users’ privacy,” by the company claiming no awareness of the image collection.