U.K. Goverment Spies Accused of Recording Yahoo Webcam Chats

Feb 27, 2014 12:00 PM PST

LONDON — Yahoo believes the U.K. spy agency GCHQ may have interceped and stored millions of users’ webcam images — many sexual in nature — from its chat platform.

Examining reports from notorious whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Guardian published claims that GCHQ worked with America’s National Security Agency (NSA) to accrue Yahoo webcam chats in bulk.

“We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity,” a Yahoo spokesperson announced in response to the news. “This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable and we strongly call on the world’s governments to reform surveillance law consistent with the principles we outlined in December.”

The operation, codenamed Optic Nerve, ran between 2008 and 2010 and collected images of individuals, whether or not they were suspected of questionable activity.

According to Snowden’s document, 3 to 11 percent of the Yahoo images collected contained “undesirable nudity.”  

“Unfortunately ... it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,” Snowden said.

“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,” he added.

GCHQ did not collect the webcam chats wholesale, but rather saved one image per five minutes, topping surveilance of 1.8 million users’ accounts in one six month period alone, reports say.  

The agency claims that it was using the collected data to use in automated facial recognition experiments, monitor suspicious individuals and to discover new people to target. It has not issued a response to the Guardian's accusations.

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