In perhaps the most scandalous revelation from the Snowden files so far, The Guardian reports that the GCHQ, helped by the NSA, has intercepted and stored webcam images of millions of Internet users.
According to a new set of documents from the Snowden stash, files belonging to the GCHQ dating between 2008 and 2010 state that a surveillance program dubbed “Optic Nerve” was used to collect still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk.
The files were saved into the agency’s databases, regardless whether the individuals appearing in the snapshots were targets of the intelligence community or not.
If you’re wondering about the reach of the program, you should know that in six months, back in 2008, “Optic Nerve” collected webcam stills from 1.8 million Yahoo users from all over the world.
Yahoo was, naturally, kept in the dark about the issue and when The Guardian approached the company with the information, the reaction was described as “furious.” The Internet giant denied any prior knowledge of the program, and classified it as a “whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy.”
Since the spying was done on private conversations between individuals around the world, the collection of files obviously contains a lot of images depicting naked people. In fact, the GCHQ appeared surprised by the number of people who use webcam conversations to “show intimate parts of their body to the other person.”
Between 3% and 11% of the Yahoo webcam imagery collected by the GCHQ contains nudity, the agency estimates.
For what it’s worth, the agency did try to avoid collecting such files and implemented a system that tried to tell how much skin was displayed in a picture before sending them over to analysts. When the solution backfired and started taking out full-face shots, it was dumped.
Afterwards, it looks like the agency compromised and stopped sending images to be analyzed where no faces were detected. Of course, no system was 100 percent effective, so a lot of naked pictures continued to reach agents.
For those hoping that the program was, at the very least, a temporary one, files indicate that it began in 2008 and in 2012 it was still active.
“Optic Nerve” collected
data in bulk
The idea behind the program was to have a way to experiment with facial recognition to monitor targets and to discover their interests. The searches were made to identify terror suspects or criminals. Instead of collecting full webcam chats, the program saved an image every five minutes.
However, the system scanned through a huge number of users who were “unselected,” meaning they were subject to bulk collection rather than a targeted effort.
One document, The Guardian points out, even likens the program to going through a massive digital police mug book of individuals.
“Optic Nerve” works by collecting information from GCHQ’s network of Internet cable taps. This means that the intelligence agency can easily bypass tech companies without going to all the trouble of asking for their permission to access various types of data.
The collected information was processed with the help of systems provided by the NSA, such as XKeyscore, the extensive search tool built by the American agency.