UK spy agency GCHQ stored millions of images from Yahoo users' webcams

It seems that we are far from having learned the whole, ugly truth about government surveillance of citizens. After it emerged a few months ago that the NSA and other agencies had the capability to activate a user’s webcam remotely, and without the indicator light showing it is in use, it has now been revealed that UK intelligence agency GCHQ captured images from webcam chats of unsuspecting users.

According to The Guardian, GCHQ worked with America’s National Security Agency on a joint project called Optic Nerve. The program targeted Yahoo webcam chats between 2008 and 2010, but users were not targeted individually. Indeed, the method of collection appears somewhat indiscriminate, with still images captured and stored from the cam chats of over 1.8 million users within a single six-month period in 2008.

In documents leaked by infamous whistleblower Edward Snowden, Optic Nerve is described as “a web interface to display Yahoo Webcam images sampled from unselected intercept and a system for proportionate target discovery.” The program captured one image from every five minutes of a user’s video conversation.

Notes in the documentation suggest that Optic Nerve had at least one application in the field of facial recognition: “Face detection has the potential to aid selection of useful images for ‘mugshots’ or even for face recognition by assessing the angle of the face,” the notes say. “The best images are ones where the person is facing the camera with their face upright.”

Yahoo was reportedly chosen above other services because, according to the documentation, “Yahoo webcam is known to be used by GCHQ targets”.

Apparently, GCHQ had some issues with sifting through gigabytes of sexual imagery captured on cam. One document naïvely states: “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.”

Yahoo is, unsurprisingly, furious about the revelations. A spokesperson for the company said in a statement: “We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity. This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable… We are committed to preserving our users’ trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across our services.” 

Source: The Guardian

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21 Comments

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you guys are silly, these "images" were intercepted, not live captured...

I am not saying that in itself is innocent, just saying you are silly to worry about your webcam

Laura said,
I'm pretty sure that never happened.

Can't say i remember any one saying that either. Be interested to see a link to someone saying it though...

Laura said,
I'm pretty sure that never happened.

Funny how they seem to have selective memory, you didn't see any of the UK bloke saying how the US was evil and spies on everyone, only in the US and how your government doesn't do the same thing?

Edrick Smith said,

Funny how they seem to have selective memory, you didn't see any of the UK bloke saying how the US was evil and spies on everyone, only in the US and how your government doesn't do the same thing?

Nope. Care to link. I'll happily eat my hat though.

whoa! you know that ladies or gentlemen who asked money for cybersex over the internet with cams. it is part of lust. I heard about child pornographic over the internet with cam too. I read about this on yahoo! Philippines a few weeks ago, because UK agent is spying on them too.

And people think you're paranoid if you put a piece of electrical tape over the webcam on your laptop...

This is extremely invasive. Besides, what's the point in blanket-collection of webcam snapshots? Catching people in the act of crimes and prosecuting based on that evidence? This is an outright disgusting abuse of power.

Edited by Caleo, Feb 27 2014, 7:09pm :

Yeah well we already know that there are tools to turn on webcams without the LED or other indicators.

From the Guardian article:

However, analysts were shown the faces of people with similar usernames to surveillance targets, potentially dragging in large numbers of innocent people. One document tells agency staff they were allowed to display "webcam images associated with similar Yahoo identifiers to your known target".

I like the implication that there are 'suspects' and then there are other, innocent people. Despite the fact that suspects have not, presumably, been convicted of anything yet. How do we definite 'suspect' I wonder? Anyone could be included...

I think they're also using it as a dataset for development of their face recognition tools.

I don't use Yahoo! and rarely use a webcam; when I do use a webcam, I certainly don't share anything intimate.

With that said, I feel somewhat sorry for the individuals who would be so naive.

Just because someone might have shared intimate imagery with say their partner doesn't give a third party the right to intercept the data. There's no legal justification for such large-scale indiscriminate data collection.

LimeMaster92 said,
And that's why it's good not to have a webcam.

Oh come on, people want to see you green lime... they want to learn about you and see if they could use lime in their drinks/food..

shozilla said,

Oh come on, people want to see you green lime... they want to learn about you and see if they could use lime in their drinks/food..


I don't have a webcam, thankfully. So I don't need to deal with NSA or GCHQ watching me stare into a screen.

shozilla said,

Oh come on, people want to see you green lime... they want to learn about you and see if they could use lime in their drinks/food..

Want to see if they can put him in the coconut