International Law

UK spies stored Yahoo webcam images from around the world (some explicit): Does NSA have copies?

A British spy agency collected and stored images from 1.8 million Yahoo webcam video chats during a six-month period in 2008.

And it wasn’t just faces that were captured and saved by the Optic Nerve program, according to the Los Angeles Times (sub. req.) and Reuters.

“Unfortunately … it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,” said a document obtained by the British newspaper the Guardian, which broke the story. It said it learned about the secret Government Communications Headquarters surveillance program from documents obtained by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency of the U.S. Department of Justice who is now living in asylum in Russia to avoid prosecution in a U.S. espionage case.


Image from Shutterstock.

The British newspaper says GCHQ saved one image every 5 minutes, because it lacked technological capability to store entire video chats. The images were then used in an experimental automated facial recognition program to keep track of existing agency targets and identify new individuals of interest. (Those using multiple anonymous sites aroused suspicion, according to the article.)

Most of those whose images were captured had done nothing wrong. However, nothing in British law prevents the spy agency from collecting information about Americans, the Guardian says, and GCHQ did not have the technical means to make sure no images of U.K. or U.S. citizens were stored.

In a written statement provided to the Times, Yahoo said it had been unaware of the program and did not approve of it.

“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,” the company said.

A GCHQ representative told Reuters the agency does not comment on intelligence matters. However, in a written statement provided to the BBC News, it indicated that it had done nothing wrong:

“All of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework,” the statement says, “which ensures that our activities are authorized, 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.”

It is unknown whether any of the images obtained during the Optic Nerve program were provided to the NSA.

Related coverage: “NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times in one-year period, Snowden leak reveals” “NSA phone records collection program is illegal and ineffective, government oversight board says” “Mayer Brown was reportedly spied on by NSA ally; law firm says it wasn’t subject of alleged scrutiny” “ABA asks NSA to explain how intelligence agency deals with attorney-client privilege”

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