British spy agency GCHQ has spied on millions of Yahoo users’ webcam images as part of a bulk collection program codenamed Optic Nerve, according to the latest report based on documents provided by Edward Snowden.
The GCHQ, with help from the NSA, collected a vast number of webcam pictures from 1.8 million users over a six-month period by tapping fiber optic cables. The program began as a prototype in 2008 but was still active in 2012, The Guardian reported.
A large number of images turned out to be pornographic:
Between 3% and 11% of the entire database harvested by GCHQ contained “undesirable nudity,” the documents read.
“Unfortunately […] it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,” the documents read, according to The Guardian. “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.”
Optic Nerve was used to monitor GCHQ’s targets and find new targets; it was also an experiment to improve facial recognition technology. But the program cast a wide net: GCHQ analysts were allowed to collect and view images of Yahoo users with similar nicknames to known targets. The goal was to catch terrorists who were using multiple, similar IDs.
The GCHQ’s tactics for collecting webcam images in bulk without hacking into targets’ computers are unclear, but some theorize it may have been possible because Yahoo didn’t encrypt the webcam feeds while in transit over the Internet.
Ashkan Soltani, a privacy and security researchers who has also worked on the Snowden leaks for The Washington Post, said this is likely how the GCHQ tapped the images. “It could also be gotten through a muscular capability,” Soltani added, referring to the NSA’s program to defeat web encryption.
Read the full story at Mashable