Britain's spy agency GCHQ intercepted millions of people's
webcam chats and stored still images of them, including
sexually explicit ones. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Britain's spy agency GCHQ intercepted millions of
people's webcam chats and stored still images of them,
including sexually explicit ones, the Guardian newspaper
GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 provided to the
newspaper by the former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)
contractor Edward Snowden, revealed that the surveillance
programme, codenamed Optic Nerve, saved one image every five
minutes from randomly selected Yahoo Inc webcam chats and
stored them on agency databases.
Optic Nerve, which began as a prototype in 2008 and was still
active in 2012, was intended to test automated facial
recognition, monitor GCHQ's targets and uncover new ones, the
Guardian said. It said that under British law, there are no
restrictions preventing images of US citizens being accessed
by British intelligence.
GCHQ collected images from the webcam chats of more than 1.8
million users globally in a six-month period in 2008 alone,
the newspaper reported.
"It is a long-standing policy that we do not comment on
intelligence matters," a GCHQ representative said on
In another sign of the widespread information-sharing between
US and British spy agencies which has riled public and
politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, the webcam
information was fed into the NSA's search tool and all of the
policy documents were available to NSA analysts, the paper
It was not clear, however, whether the NSA had access to the
actual database of Yahoo webcam images, the Guardian
Yahoo said it had no knowledge the interceptions.
"We were not aware of nor would we condone this reported
activity. This (Guardian) report, if true, represents a whole
new level of violation of our users' privacy that is
completely unacceptable," company spokeswoman Suzanne Philion
said in an emailed statement.
Snowden, now in Russia after fleeing the United States, made
world headlines last summer when he provided details of NSA
surveillance programs to the Guardian and the Washington
For decades, the NSA and GCHQ have shared intelligence under
an arrangement known as the UKUSA agreement. They also
collaborate with eavesdropping agencies in Canada, Australia
and New Zealand in what is known as the "Five Eyes" alliance.
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, the
GCHQ also implemented restrictions on the collection of
sexually explicit images, but its software was not always
able to distinguish between these and other images.
"Discussing efforts to make the interface "safer to use", it
(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," the newspaper said.
The spy agency eventually excluded images in which the
software had not detected any faces from search results to
prevent staff from accessing explicit images, it added.