Optic Nerve: UK Spy Agency GCHQ Collected Millions of Sexually Explicit Pictures from Yahoo Webcam Chats

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By Gopi Chandra Kharel | February 28, 2014 8:33 PM EST

British Surveillance agency GCHQ and United States National Security Agency (NSA) have intercepted and stored millions of webcam imagery, of which substantial quantities are sexually explicit material, according to reports.

The GCHQ documents, dated between 2008 and 2010, were provided to The Guardian newspaper by US fugitive and whistleblower Edward Snowden. They show a particular surveillance program - codenamed Optic Nerve - save an image every five minutes from random Yahoo wecam chats and store them without the knowledge of both Yahoo, as well as the individuals concerned.

In 2008, within a six-month period alone, GCHQ collected webcam imagery, including sexual images, from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally, the Guardian reported, citing documents from Snowden.

Yahoo has condemned the webcam interception and called it "a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy", the newspaper said.

"We were not aware of nor would we condone this reported activity," the paper quoted a Yahoo spokesperson as saying.

"This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our user' 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. We are committed to preserving our users' trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services."

Legal Policy Framework

In a statement, GCHQ said: "It is a long-standing policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework 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."

The report also said that GCHQ does not have the technical means to make sure no images of UK or US citizens are collected and stored by the database. This program, which collected information in bulk from largely anonymous user IDs, is unable to filter out whether the images are from UK or US citizens.

The Optic Neve began as a prototype in 2008 and was active till 2012, the paper said, citing the documents. 

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