New revelations from documents leaked by Edward Snowden claim a British spy agency stored millions of webcam photos from Yahoo users around the world — some of them sexually explicit.
As The Guardian first reported, Britain's Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ, with the help of the National Security Agency, reportedly intercepted and stored the images between 2008 and 2010. The program was reportedly still active through 2012.
According to the leaked documents, the program, called "Optic Nerve," stored images from as many as 1.8 million users over a six-month period in 2008. Those images were gathered indiscriminately, meaning many users under surveillance were not suspected of any wrongdoing.
As RT writes, “The GCHQ didn't stop at targeting solely suspected terrorists … and instead collected intelligence by seemingly anyone unfortunate enough to log-in to Yahoo's webcam chat feature.”
According to Time, the program was designed to test and improve GCHQ’s facial recognition software while snapping a photo of a user every five minutes. But it appears they weren’t just getting pictures of people’s faces.
Time quotes one of the GCHQ documents which reads, “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.”
Now, The Guardian reports those sexually explicit images, which represented between three and 11 percent of the total images, were not gathered intentionally. The agency also reportedly took steps to eliminate photos in which a face had not been detected.
For their part Yahoo has denied any knowledge of the program.
"They put out a statement to us saying 'We were not aware of nor would we condone this reported activity. This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy that is completely unacceptable.'" (Via CNN)
And GCHQ denies any wrongdoing. BBC quotes their statement which reads, "All of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight.”
Yahoo has fought against government surveillance in the past. As The New York Times reports, the company initially refused to join the NSA's controversial PRISM program before being forced to by a secret U.S. court.