Millions of Yahoo! users’ webcams accessed by UK spy agency

27 Feb 2014

According to leaked information, 1.8m Yahoo! users’ webcams were accessed and used by the UK’s spy agency, GCHQ, without their knowledge.

The files highlighted by the Guardian showed that the operation known as ‘Optic Nerve’ conducted between 2008 and 2010 harvested millions of images of Yahoo! users at their computers and were taken every five minutes using their in-built webcams.

The documents are part of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaked documents which has put him as the American and UK government’s most sought-after individual.

The documents show that the Optic Nerve programme was used as a series of experiments in GCHQ’s facial recognition software and whether it could be used on existing targets of the state spy agency or even targets that it feels would be worthy of surveillance.

However, there was no regard for people’s privacy as the system randomly selected users of Yahoo! regardless of any previous criminal records or worthy of investigation.

Not pleasant viewing

It was not all pleasant viewing for the team responsible for sifting through these images, however. Because of the nature of what people get up to on their own in front of their computers, GCHQ issued a warning to staff members that they might be susceptible to seeing ‘undesirable nudity’ which, according to their statistics, accounted for between 6 – 11pc of all recorded images.

In the document they state: “”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.”

Understandably, Yahoo! has reacted furiously to the news with a spokesperson for the company 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 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.”

Webcam on laptop image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic