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Tech

Use Yahoo? Government Agents Are Spying On Your Webcam.

Sexually explicit images are included in the data sweeps. And you thought phone and email surveillance was bad.

Images from webcams are being collected as part of government surveillance, according to secret documents revealed by Edward Snowden.(AFP/Getty)

photo of Dustin Volz
February 27, 2014

Forget about phone and email surveillance. New revelations from Edward Snowden may dwarf those concerns, as top-secret documents show that surveillance operatives are collecting and storing webcam images.

British spies, in cooperation with the National Security Agency, are collecting webcam images of millions of Internet users through a program known as "Optic Nerve," according to excerpts of secret documents published by The Guardian on Thursday.

During a six-month span in 2008, British agents collected still webcam images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo users worldwide, "including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications." Snapshots from Yahoo chats were taken once every five minutes and stored on the British agency's database.

 

Yahoo denied being aware of the program prior to The Guardian story.

"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," a Yahoo spokesperson said in a statement to National Journal. "We are committed to preserving our users' trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services."

The British government lacks the technical ability to discern whether the images it collects are from its own citizens or from others, including Americans. There is no law in the United Kingdom preventing the collection of images from Americans' webcams without an individual warrant. Unlike the NSA, British authorities face no legal requirement to scrub certain information gathered on citizens from its database.

Why Yahoo? According to the documents, the Internet giant's webcam is "known to be used by [Government Communications Headquarters] targets." GCHQ is the British equivalent of the NSA.

Despite the potential for terrorists to use webcams to communicate, a document described as from the mid-2000s concedes, "One of the greatest hindrances to exploiting video data is the fact that the vast majority of videos received have no intelligence value whatsoever, such as pornography, commercials, movie clips, and family home movies."

Another classified report explains further the limitations of Optic Nerve:

"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." 

Between 3 and 11 percent of the webcam images collected are estimated to contain "undesirable nudity." 

It is not clear exactly what level of access the NSA had to the database of images, though information was transferred to the agency's XKeyscore search tool.

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union said the report "raises troubling questions" about the NSA's involvement in Optic Nerve.

"We need to know more about what the NSA knew, and what role it played," Alex Abdo, an ACLU staff attorney, said.

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