UK Intelligence Has Its Eye on Yahoo Webcam Users, Literally

YOUR HOUSE—Millions of Yahoo webcam chat users will be interested to learn that a British intelligence agency, with the assistance of the National Security Agency (NSA), has been taking furtive photos of you through your webcams, and that a “surprising number” of you were caught with your pants down, and off. You may be heartened to know, however, that the spies were sensitive enough to your nudity and/or explicit acts of sex to try to keep those images away from the contract employees—i.e. the Edward Snowdens of the world—and to admonish staff that there would be serious consequences in the event that anyone disseminated any of the more lascivious shots.

According to the Guardian, which broke this story yesterday, “Yahoo reacted furiously to the webcam interception when approached by the Guardian. The company denied any prior knowledge of the program, accusing the agencies of ‘a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy.’”

That sounds like the understatement of the century. One can only assume that Yahoo realized immediately the unique sense of personal violation that will be felt by the millions of users of its webcam who were targeted en masse by GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), the British government’s equivalent to the NSA, for a previously secret program called Optic Nerve, which “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 one six-month period in 2008 alone,” added the Guardian, “the agency collected webcam imagery—including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications—from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.”

As absolutely egregious as the snooping was, the agency was not storing chats wholesale but instead “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 the Guardian, the agency also tried to mitigate access to images by restricting searches by analysts to “metadata only,” though they were allowed to compare some images of people “with similar usernames to surveillance targets, potentially dragging in large numbers of innocent people. One document tells agency staff they were allowed to display ‘webcam images associated with similar Yahoo identifiers to your known target.’”

One justification used for the secret image collection program is that “GCHQ targets” are known to use Yahoo webcam,” and “GCHQ insists all of its activities are necessary, proportionate, and in accordance with UK law.”

And then there’s the sexually activity on the webcams, the amount and explicitness of which apparently took GCHQ by surprise. According to the Guardian, “Sexually explicit webcam material proved to be a particular problem for GCHQ, as one document delicately put it: ‘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.”

That same document estimated that between 3 and 11 percent of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested by GCHQ contained “undesirable nudity.”

“We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity," said a Yahoo spokeswoman in response to the news. "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.

"We are committed to preserving our users' trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services," she added.

The official fallout may have only begun, however. Today, three U.S. senators issued a joint statement referring to the program's “breathtaking lack of respect for privacy and civil liberties," and promising an investigation into "any role the National Security Agency played in its British partner’s mass collection of Yahoo webcam images."