British spies may have naked pictures of you.
That’s the latest revelation from the Guardian’s investigation of documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, which show that the UK’s GCHQ intelligence agency covertly collected snapshots of millions of Yahoo users’ video chats between 2008 and 2010. And yes, the screenshot trove includes “substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications,” according to the report.
“…a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person…”
The webcam spying program, known as “Optic Nerve,” targeted Yahoo users regardless of whether they were suspected of any crime or terrorist activity. Launched in 2008, the program was reportedly still operational in 2012. Unlike the United States, the UK does not have laws that require GCHQ to weed out US or UK citizens.
In response to the Optic Nerve revelations, Yahoo called the program “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”.
“We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity,” a Yahoo spokesperson told the Guardian. “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.
“We are committed to preserving our users’ trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services.”
The purpose of Optic Nerve, according to leaked documents from GCHQ’s internal wiki, was to test out automated facial recognition in an attempt to identify intelligence targets, some of whom reportedly used Yahoo video chat services to communicate. That information would then be used to connect targets with additional online aliases. As one document describes it, “think Tom Cruise in Minority Report.”
“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,” reads the document. “The best images are ones where the person is facing the camera with their face upright.”
Problem is, GCHQ found that many Yahoo chat users positioned themselves a bit, well, differently. This resulted in between 3 percent and 11 percent of the images collected containing “undesirable nudity,” as one document put it.
“Unfortunately … it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,” reads one document. “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.”
While Minority Report-esque bulk facial recognition software aimed at innocent people’s bedrooms is a staggering violation of privacy, GCHQ appears to have made substantial efforts to keep images of naked Yahoo video chat users from being seen by analysts. But the system was far from perfect. In some instances, Optic Nerve incorrectly identified faces as nudity. In others, the lewd images were not properly sorted out. As one document notes, “there is no perfect ability to censor material which may be offensive. Users who may feel uncomfortable about such material are advised not to open them”.
The documents show that some of the collected Yahoo video chat data was fed into the NSA’s XKeyscore search tool, but it is unclear how much of the information was shared with the US spy agency.
In a statement, ACLU staff attorney Alex Abdo called the webcam spying program “truly shocking,” and questioned the NSA’s knowledge or involvement in the program.
“In a world in which there is no technological barrier to pervasive surveillance, the scope of the government’s surveillance activities must be decided by the public, not secretive spy agencies interpreting secret legal authorities,” said Abdo. “This report also raises troubling questions about the NSA’s complicity in what is a massive and unprecedented violation of privacy. We need to know more about what the NSA knew, and what role it played.”
Last updated at 12:10 PM ET with additional contextual information.
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