Always fully clothed while web chatting on the computer? If not, the British Government Communication Headquarters may have explicit photos of you — captured via your webcams without your knowledge — if you used Yahoo! between 2008 and 2012.
Thanks to an assist from the National Security Agency, the GCHQ intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of Internet users not suspected of wrongdoing, the Guardian reported.
The surveillance program, codenamed Optic Nerve, was identified in GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010; the program collected still images of Yahoo! webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.
In a single six-month period in 2008, the agency collected webcam imagery – including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo! user accounts globally.
A Yahoo! representative “reacted furiously” when asked by the Guardian about the potential breach of privacy. The company denied any prior knowledge of the program, accusing the agencies of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”.
Documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show that Optic Nerve began as a prototype in 2008 and was still active in 2012, according to an internal GCHQ wiki page accessed that year.
The Guardian reported:
“Rather than collecting webcam chats in their entirety, the program saved one image every five minutes from the users’ feeds, partly to comply with human rights legislation, and also to avoid overloading GCHQ’s servers. The documents describe these users as “unselected” – intelligence agency parlance for bulk rather than targeted collection.”
According to GCHQ documents, the Optic Nerve system was used for experiments in automated facial recognition, to monitor existing targets, and to discover new targets of interest.
“As we’ve said before, the National Security Agency does not ask its foreign partners to undertake any intelligence activity that the U.S. Government would be legally prohibited from undertaking itself,” an NSA representative told TheBlaze via email. “NSA works with a number of partners in meeting its foreign-intelligence mission goals, and those operations comply with U.S. law and with the applicable laws under which those partners operate.”
“A key part of the protections that apply to both U.S. persons and citizens of other countries is the mandate that information be in support of a valid foreign intelligence requirement, and comply with U.S. Attorney General-approved procedures to protect privacy rights. Those procedures govern the acquisition, use, and retention of information about U.S. persons,” the NSA said.
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