Yahoo slams British spy agency that allegedly snapped up webcam images

Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ intercepted webcam images of millions of innocent Internet users with its Optic Nerve program, according to a report in the Guardian.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Yahoo, whose headquarters is in Sunnyvale, Calif., has reacted angrily to allegations that Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ intercepted images of millions of innocent users of Yahoo webcam chats.

Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ intercepted webcam images of millions of innocent Internet users, alleges the Guardian, which bases its report on leaked documents provided by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The program, code-named Optic Nerve, includes still images from Yahoo webcam chats from 2008 to 2010. In a one-month period in 2008, images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts, regardless of whether individuals were suspects or not, were collected. Much of it was sexually explicit, the newspaper reports.

As of publishing time, the Guardian piece has garnered more than 2,500 comments – an indication of how controversial the new allegations are both in Britain and across the globe. 

Yahoo reacted angrily to the allegations, saying it was unaware of widespread surveillance. "We were not aware of nor would we condone this reported activity," a spokeswoman for the US technology firm told Agence France-Presse in an email statement. "This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy that is completely unacceptable. We are committed to preserving our users' trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services."

The Associated Press in San Francisco explains how Internet companies have been caught in government spying webs and are attempting to secure their services in the future.

Companies that operate Internet services send vast amounts of data — including video and webcam chats — through fiber-optic lines between their data centers around the world. After recent disclosures about government tapping of some of those lines, all three companies have said they are working to encrypt links between data centers. Yahoo has said that encryption will be in place for all of its services by March 31. Google has encrypted its video chat services since at least 2010. 

It notes that Yahoo Messenger has 75 million users worldwide, according to a recent estimate by digital analytics company comScore.

GCHQ defended itself in the face of the latest allegations, all of which have emerged since Mr. Snowden, who remains in Russia with temporary asylum, began leaking documents to reporters last year. “It is a long-standing policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters," it said in a statement. "Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorized, necessary, and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners, and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.”

American politicians reacted angrily to the news. "We are extremely troubled by today's press report that a very large number of individuals — including law-abiding Americans — may have had private videos of themselves and their families intercepted and stored without any suspicion of wrongdoing," Senators Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, Mark Udall (D) of Colorado, and Martin Heinrich (D) of New Mexico said in a joint statement published by the AFP. "If this report is accurate, it would show a breathtaking lack of respect for the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens."

"It is becoming clearer and clearer that more needs to be done to ensure that 'foreign' intelligence collection does not intrude unnecessarily on the rights of law-abiding people or needlessly undermine the competitiveness of America's leading industries," the senators added.

The revelations have also prompted anger from Europe. Digital Rights Ireland chairman TJ McIntyre told the Irish Times that the documents highlight “in a vivid way the complaints we and other groups have been saying for a long time about indiscriminate mass surveillance,” he said. “It illustrates how governments – including the Irish Government – have become wedded to monitoring everyone’s communications at all times.”

The Guardian reported that Optic Nerve intended to, at least in part, identify users with automatic facial recognition software. But privacy issues, especially given the intimate material that was netted during the operation, has “echoes of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ where the authorities – operating under the aegis of 'Big Brother' – fit homes with cameras to monitor the intimate details of people’s home lives,” reports the Associated Press.

“At least Big Brother had the decency to install his own cameras,” British media lawyer David Banksy said in a message posted to Twitter after the revelations broke, reports the AP.  “We’ve had to buy them ourselves.”

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