"Britain's surveillance agency GCHQ, with aid from the U.S. National Security Agency, intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of Internet users not suspected of wrongdoing," The Guardian writes today in its latest report based on material leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
According to that material, the Guardian reports, "a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases."
"In one six-month period in 2008 alone," says the Guardian, "the agency collected webcam imagery including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally."
The program stretched from 2008 into 2010.
Yahoo, the Guardian adds, "reacted furiously" when the newssite told the company about the spy agency's activities. "The company denied any prior knowledge of the program, accusing the agencies of 'a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy,' " says the Guardian.
The British spies reportedly set up the program to save one image every five minutes from the webchats.
"A statement from GCHQ said it would not comment on matters of intelligence, but added: '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. All our operational processes rigorously support this position.' "
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement condemning the spy agency's actions and the NSA's role in the snooping:
"This is a truly shocking revelation that underscores the importance of the debate on privacy now taking place and the reforms being considered," said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. "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. 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."
This news adds to earlier evidence about spy and security agencies' ability to use individuals' computer cameras to peek at what people are up to. We reported in January about revelations from Snowden's material that indicate the NSA has implanted software in 100,000 or so computers around the world. The software lets the agency monitor the computers, alter data on them or insert malware.
The Washington Post has previously reported that:
"The FBI has been able to covertly activate a computer's camera without triggering the light that lets users know it is recording for several years, and has used that technique mainly in terrorism cases or the most serious criminal investigations, said Marcus Thomas, former assistant director of the FBI's Operational Technology Division in Quantico, now on the advisory board of Subsentio, a firm that helps telecommunications carriers comply with federal wiretap statutes."
One other note about the U.K. surveillance of video chats: The Guardian says that in one document, it is "delicately" noted that:
"Unfortunately ... 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."
According to the Guardian, "the document estimates that between 3% and 11% of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested by GCHQ contains 'undesirable nudity.' "