The Guardian reports:
Britain's surveillance agency GCHQ, with aid from the US National Security Agency, intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing, secret documents reveal.
GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve 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, the agency collected webcam imagery – including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.The BBC's coverage of this story is available here. Yahoo denies knowledge of this program. The agency limited its collection to selected images from webcam chats rather than collecting entire webcam videos. It is not entirely clear why GCHQ sought to collect these images, although the images may have been used to establish a facial identification database.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the story is that GCHQ ended up collecting a large number of explicit images through this program. This unpleasant fact is made all the more upsetting by the agency's apparent surprise at collecting these images:
Sexually explicit webcam material proved to be a particular problem forGCHQ, 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."
The document estimates that between 3% and 11% of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested by GCHQ contains "undesirable nudity".The Optic Nerve program seems notably bad because it is so invasive and because the purpose of the program is so unclear. Perhaps the images collected in this program could be cross-referenced to a series of mugshots of known criminals or terrorists and combined with the image metadata to determine a location for that individual. But this program seems so invasive and prone to abuse that these benefits are almost certainly outweighed by the program's costs.