A new report from the Guardian claims Britain’s surveillance agency, the GCHQ, has been collecting millions of pictures of Yahoo users through their webcams. During a six-month period, the agency reportedly collected images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo accounts around the world.
Documents supplied by whistleblower Edward Snowden, dated between 2008 and 2010, show the agency used a piece of software known as Optic Nerve to gather the data. The program started as an experiment in 2008 and was still in service as of 2012.
In what should be a surprise to nobody at this point, Optic Nerve was supported by the National Security Agency although it’s unclear if the program is still in use today.
The agency collected still images from Yahoo webcam chats and stored them in a database. Instead of recording the entire webcam chat, the program would snap an image every five minutes in an effort to comply with human rights legislation and also to avoid overloading their servers.
Images were seemingly collected at random regardless of whether or not an individual was considered to be a “target.” It wasn’t uncommon for screenshots to contain sexually explicit content, the publication noted, as anywhere between three to 11 percent of imagery harvested by the GCHQ contained undesirable nudity.
Captured images where then fed into an automated facial recognition program that would match users with known targets.
A spokesperson for the agency said it is a longstanding policy not to comment on intelligence matters.