UK Spy Agency Captured Yahoo Webcam Images, Including The Naked Ones

The Edward Snowden leaks just keep on coming, and the latest one is a doozy: Between 2008 and 2012, Great Britain’s NSA equivalent, GCHQ, secretly collected millions of images from private Yahoo webcam chats, including “substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications.” Many of the individuals monitored weren’t even suspected of doing anything illegal, some didn’t even live in the U.K., and the images were all stored in the agency’s database. And, of course, the program was carried out in conjunction with the U.S. National Security Agency.

The sweep of the surveillance program, unnervingly code-named Optic Nerve, is absolutely breathtaking: In one six-month period alone, the agency collected images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo users. A lot of this was “unselected” surveillance, meaning that it was carried out in bulk with no specific target in mind. The program would capture one image every five minutes from webcam chats and use those images for a variety of purposes, among them the testing of facial recognition software.

According to the documents, the program commenced because “Yahoo webcam is known to be used by GCHQ targets.” This led to users being targeted based on some questionable criteria — for example, having a user name similar to that of a terror target.

As for the “sexually explicit communications,” we’ll just quote the GCHQ document itself:

Unfortunately, there are issues with undesirable images within the data. It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person. 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.

The phrasing of that second sentence is particularly worrisome, as it suggests a rather staggering degree of ignorance about webcams and the Internet on behalf of whoever wrote it. Anyway, the document estimates that between 3 and 11 percent of the documents contained “undesirable nudity,” and while attempts were made to prevent those images from being viewable by analysts, the report ultimately concluded that “there is no perfect ability” to do this.

When asked to comment, Yahoo claimed to be completely in the dark about it, and said that the program, “if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable.”

The whole report is pretty outrageous, but the most damning part came in GCHQ’s assessment of whether or not the program was actually lawful.

"It was agreed that the legalities of such a capability would be considered once it had been developed,” the report reads.

So, launch the program first, figure out whether or not it’s legal later. Gotcha. What could possibly go wrong?