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Guardian: Spy Agencies Collected Intimate Webcam Content From Innocent People

February 27, 2014 by  

If you got full-frontal during a webcam chat on Yahoo Messenger in the latter part of the last decade (we hope you didn’t… then or ever), there’s a possibility that spies at the British GCHQ spy agency as well as some at the U.S. National Security Agency got a look at your junk.

According to the most recent Edward Snowden leaks analyzed by The Guardian, the NSA aided Britain’s GCHQ in intercepting and storing the webcam images of millions of Internet users who were not suspected of crimes.

Through a program named Optic Nerve, the agencies swept up webcam images— many of which were sexually explicit— from more than 1.8 million Yahoo messenger clients in one six month period in 2008.

The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman and James Ball report:

Optic Nerve, the documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show, began as a prototype in 2008 and was still active in 2012, according to an internal GCHQ wiki page accessed that year.

The system, eerily reminiscent of the telescreens evoked in George Orwell’s 1984, was used for experiments in automated facial recognition, to monitor GCHQ’s existing targets, and to discover new targets of interest. Such searches could be used to try to find terror suspects or criminals making use of multiple, anonymous user IDs.

Rather than collecting webcam chats in their entirety, the program saved one image every five minutes from the users’ feeds, partly to comply with human rights legislation, and also to avoid overloading GCHQ’s servers. The documents describe these users as “unselected” – intelligence agency parlance for bulk rather than targeted collection.

One document even likened the program’s “bulk access to Yahoo webcam images/events” to a massive digital police mugbook of previously arrested individuals.

While there were apparently some safeguards in place to restrict analysts’ search ability to “metadata only,” analysts viewed enough of the content to notice that a large number of people throughout the world use their webcams pornographic purposes.

“It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,” read one concerned analyst’s note.

“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 use for broadcasting pornography.”

 Read the full Guardian story.

Sam Rolley

Staff writer Sam Rolley began a career in journalism working for a small town newspaper while seeking a B.A. in English. After learning about many of the biases present in most modern newsrooms, Rolley became determined to find a position in journalism that would allow him to combat the unsavory image that the news industry has gained. He is dedicated to seeking the truth and exposing the lies disseminated by the mainstream media at the behest of their corporate masters, special interest groups and information gatekeepers.

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