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.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
Add to Briefcase
Dustin Volz
Feb. 27, 2014, 5:27 a.m.

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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