British spy agency reportedly collected millions of webcam images from Yahoo users

Sarah Silbert
S. Silbert|02.27.14

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Sarah Silbert
February 27th, 2014
British spy agency reportedly collected millions of webcam images from Yahoo users

Britain's surveillance agency, GCHQ, hasn't fared much better than the NSA these past several months; the latest leak shared with the Guardian claims that Britain has been collecting millions of webcam images from Yahoo users. What's more, it appears that these images were used to discover "targets" and match users with existing persons of interest via automated facial recognition.

According to documents provided by Edward Snowden, GCHQ intercepted still images of Yahoo video calls -- including those done with Yahoo Messenger -- in bulk and saved them as part of a program code-named Optic Nerve. The agency apparently collected these images whether or not users were deemed intelligence targets -- in a six-month period in 2008, it amassed webcam pics from more than 1.8 million Yahoo users around the globe. The documents also reveal that these images were collected with the purpose of identifying targets using facial-recognition tools to compare Yahoo users to existing GCHQ targets.

Though the revelation that GCHQ has been collecting and viewing Yahoo user's private webcam chats is remarkable in and of itself, the agency's naiveté is also a bit surprising; according to documents, the agency observed that "unfortunately... it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person." GCHQ reportedly instituted efforts to shield explicit images from its staff, but it doesn't require a huge leap to understand the privacy issues at stake for Yahoo users who assume their webchats aren't being monitored.

Yahoo, which has taken measures to protect users in light of recent privacy concerns, told the Guardian it wasn't aware of this program, and GCHQ has declined to comment. It remains unclear whether Optic Nerve is still up and running, though we'll be sure to report on any additional leaks if they become available.

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