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UK spied on millions of intimate webcam chats

Report says GCHQ took screenshots from private Yahoo video conversations, and many of the images stored were explicit.

Last updated: 27 Feb 2014 20:47
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Yahoo said the spying was 'a whole new level of violation' [AP]

British spies are stealing screenshots from hundreds of thousands of innocent Yahoo users' webcam videos, according to reports, which state that the years-long operation has swept up a huge haul of intimate photographs.

The Guardian on Thursday said the GCHQ has been taking sensitive images by intercepting video chats such as the kind offered by Yahoo Messenger, an effort codenamed optic nerve.

The newspaper said that in one six-month period in 2008 GCHQ intercepted the video communications of 1.8 million users, but it's possible that the programme, has either grown or shrunk in scope since then.

At least Big Brother had the decency to install his own cameras. We've had to buy them ourselves

David Banksey, lawyer

The documents were provided by former US intelligence worker Edward Snowden, who remains in Russia after having sought temporary asylum there.

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

If confirmed, the Guardian's report would represent "a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy," Yahoo said in a written statement.

The company said it was unaware of such spying and would never condone it, calling on governments across the world to reform their surveillance practices.

Like the collection of millions of innocent people's phone, email, and credit card data by the US National Security Agency, the webcam spying was carried out in bulk, creating a database where the communications of hundreds of thousands of people could later be scanned by analysts for clues or patterns.

Optic Nerve also automatically downloaded the content of video communications - taking a screenshot from the video feed every five minutes, the Guardian said. One snippet of a leaked document published to the Guardian's website appears to show that GCHQ hoped to eventually "collect images at a faster rate,"

"It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,'' another snippet of an intelligence document published said. It went on to say that an informal study had found that between 3 and 11 percent of all the images carried "undesirable nudity."

The Guardian said Optic Nerve was intended at least in part to identify targets using automatic facial recognition software as they stared into their computer's webcams.

"At least Big Brother had the decency to install his own cameras,'' British media lawyer David Banksy said in a message posted to Twitter that referenced George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. "We've had to buy them ourselves."

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