September 27, 2023
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Britian’s Spy Agency Intercepts Yahoo’s Webcam

File photo of the Yahoo logo is shown at the company's headquarters in SunnyvaleBritain’s spy agency GCHQ has intercepted millions of people’s webcam chats and the stored still images of them. GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 provided to the Guardian newspaper by the former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the surveillance programme, which is codenamed Optic Nerve, saved one image every five minutes from a random selection of Yahoo webcam chats and stored them on the agency databases. Apparently in a six month period in 2008 alone, GCHQ collected images from webcam chats of more than 1.8 million users globally.

The initial purpose behind the Optic Nerve which began as a prototype in 2008 was to test automated facial recognition, monitor GCHQ’s targets and uncover new ones according to the Guardian. Under the British law, there are restrictions for the British intelligence to access images of U.S. citizens. A GCHQ representative stated that “It is a long standing policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters.”

According to the Guardian, the webcam information was fed into the NSA’s search tool and all of the policy documents were available to NSA analysts which is another sign of the information sharing between U.S. and British spy agencies which has caused a quite bit of angry within the public as well as the politicians in both of the countries.  However it is not clear as to how the NSA had access to the actual database of the Yahoo webcam images and Yahoo said that it was unaware of such interceptions. Yahoo’s spokeswoman Suzanne Philion stated in an email that they “were not aware of nor would (they) condone this reported activity.” If the report by Guardian is true apparently it “represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable.”

According to the newspaper “discussing efforts to make the interface “safer to use,” GCHQ noted that current “naïve” pornography detectors assessed the amount of flesh in any given shot, and so attracted lots of false positives by incorrectly tagging shots of people’s faces as pornography.” Under Optic Nerve, GCHQ tried to limit its staff’s ability to see the webcam images, but they could still see the images of people with similar usernames to intelligence targets.  Eventually the spy agency excluded images in which the software had not detected any faces from search results to prevent staff from accessing explicit images.


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