Britain’s surveillance agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), with assistance from the US National Security Agency (NSA), intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of Internet users not suspected of wrongdoing, secret documents reveal.
GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 state that a surveillance program, codenamed Optic Nerve, collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether the users were an intelligence target.
In one six-month period in 2008, GCHQ collected webcam imagery — including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications — from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.
Yahoo reacted furiously to news of the webcam interception, denying any prior knowledge of the program and accusing the agencies of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy.”
GCHQ does not have the technical means to ensure no images of British or US citizens are collected and stored by the system, and there are no restrictions under UK law to prevent US citizens’ images being accessed by British analysts without individual warrants.
The documents, provided by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, also chronicle GCHQ’s sustained struggle to keep the large store of sexually explicit imagery collected by Optic Nerve away from the eyes of its staff, though there is little discussion about the privacy implications of storing this material.
Optic Nerve began as a prototype in 2008 and was still active in 2012, according to an internal GCHQ Wiki page accessed that year. The system, eerily reminiscent of the telescreens described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, was used for experiments in automated facial recognition, to monitor GCHQ’s existing targets, and to discover new targets of interest.
The program saved one image every five minutes from the users’ feeds, partly to comply with human rights legislation, and also to avoid overloading GCHQ’s servers. The documents describe these users as “unselected” — intelligence agency parlance for bulk rather than targeted collection.
The agency did make efforts to limit analysts’ ability to see webcam images, restricting bulk searches to metadata only. However, analysts were shown the faces of people with similar usernames to surveillance targets, potentially dragging in large numbers of innocent people.
Optic Nerve was based on collecting information from GCHQ’s huge network of Internet cable taps, which was then processed and fed into systems provided by the NSA. Webcam information was fed into NSA’s XKeyscore search tool, and NSA research was used to build the tool which identified Yahoo’s webcam traffic.
Sexually explicit material proved to be a particular problem for GCHQ. One document estimated that between 3 percent and 11 percent of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested by GCHQ contained “undesirable nudity.”
Yahoo said it had no knowledge of or involvement with the GCHQ collection.
“We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity,” a spokeswoman said. “This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable.”