Yahoo video chat users will be disturbed to learn that the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ may have collected and stored images from their webcams. Yes, including the sexy stuff.
On Thursday, in the latest revelation to stem from the cache of NSA and GCHQ documents leaked by Edward Snowden, The Guardian described a GCHQ program called Optic Nerve. The scheme ran from 2008 to at least 2012 — the year from which the relevant internal GCHQ wiki page dates — and it was a matter of bulk collection, scooping up images from over 1.8 million Yahoo accounts around the world in one six-month period.
GCHQ has tapped much of the internet’s core infrastructure, and these images reportedly came from those cable taps. They were then sent to the NSA for indexing.
According to the piece, Yahoo is livid. The web firm told the newspaper that, assuming the report is true, the spies had engaged in “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy.” Previous revelations have described how the NSA hoovered up Yahoo users’ email address books and instant messaging buddy lists and gained access to the firm’s data flows, so we’re clearly talking a lot of levels here.
Optic Nerve involved storing a still picture every 5 minutes — though the document mentions a desire to achieve a faster rate — and the goal appears to have been face detection. GCHQ appears to have trialed automated searches using this technology. The document describes the users as “unselected,” which means they haven’t been targeted, but it seems GCHQ tried to limit analysts’ access to the images to targeted requests.
Which is just as well. The document suggests that between 3 and 11 percent of the images included “undesirable nudity.” There’s no mention of what “desirable nudity” might entail in this context.
The Guardian piece also suggests that GCHQ was very keen on the potential of the Kinect camera that comes with the Xbox 360, which should come as no surprise to anyone as we already know the NSA and GCHQ have infiltrated the Xbox Live network, for whatever reason.
This is not the first revelation that should make people more concerned about their webcam use. At the end of last year, researchers showed that it’s pretty easy to hack into most built-in webcams and use them to spy without even turning on the webcam light. This is why I personally put electrical tape over my built-in webcam and plug in an external webcam when I really need to.