A report published by the Guardian on Thursday revealed that the British spy agency GCHQ, with help from the NSA, intercepted the private webcam chats of millions of users and stored still images of them, including sexually explicit ones.
The latest privacy breach was revealed in GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 provided to the Guardian by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In one six month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected images from over 1.8 million user accounts.
The documents reveal that the program, codenamed Optic Nerve, captured one image every five minutes from randomly selected Yahoo webcam chats. The images were then stored on agency databases for later access, regardless of if the individual user was an intelligence target.
Reuters notes that the Optic Nerve program began as a prototype in 2008 and was still active in 2012.
The program was reportedly aimed at testing automated facial recognition, monitoring GCHQ targets and uncovering new ones, according to the Guardian.
Under British law, there are no restrictions that would prevent British intelligence from accessing images of U.S. citizens, the paper noted.
When approached by the Guardian about the documents, Yahoo “reacted furiously.”
The company denied any prior knowledge of Optic Nerve and accused the spy agencies of “whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy.”
The Guardian called the system “eerily reminiscent of the telescreens evoked in George Orwell’s 1984.”
One agency document compared the program’s bulk collection to a gigantic book of mugshots of previously arrested people.
“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,” according to the Guardian. “The best images are ones where the person is facing the camera with their face upright.”
Efforts were apparently made to limit the ability of analysts to see webcam images. While bulk searches were restricted to metadata only, analysts were still able to see the faces of people with usernames similar to those of surveillance targets.
This potentially allowed large numbers of innocent people to be dragged in to the surveillance net.
Optic Nerve functioned by collecting information from the massive network of internet cables tapped by GCHQ and then processing and feeding data into NSA-provided systems.
NSA research was used to create the tool that identified Yahoo webcam traffic and the NSA’s XKeyscore search tool was used to query the data. German intelligence also reportedly used XKeyscore.
GCHQ would not comment on the program, saying it is their longstanding policy to not comment on intelligence matters.
“Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee,” a GCHQ spokesman said in a statement. “All our operational processes rigorously support this position.”
The NSA would not respond to questions about their access to the Optic Nerve system, the presence of U.S. citizens’ data in the systems, or if they had similar programs.
Vanee Vines, an NSA spokeswoman, told the Guardian that they did not ask foreign partners like GCHQ to conduct intelligence gathering that they could not legally do on their own.
“he NSA works with a number of partners in meeting its foreign intelligence mission goals, and those operations comply with US law and with the applicable laws under which those partners operate,” she said.
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