UK's Optic Nerve program spied on millions of Yahoo users' video chats -- found porn

It sounds like something from a James Bond film -- or something from a creepy news story about a landlord stalking one of his tenants -- but the headline relates to a real story. We're all only too aware of the activities of the NSA and other governmental agencies monitoring the telephone and internet activities of people around the world, but the latest revelations see things taking a turn for the seriously sinister.

The UK intelligence agency GCHQ, between 2008 and 2010, tapped into the webcam chats of millions of Yahoo users.

A report in the Guardian reveals that, just as has been the case with other instances of surveillance, monitoring was carried out indiscriminately and that the agency gathered all manner of material, including that of a sexual nature. The data gathering was not just carried out in the UK; this was a global operation that is revealed in secret documents obtained by the UK newspaper.

Yahoo was chosen for monitoring by GCHQ because "Yahoo webcam is known to be used by GCHQ targets". Surveillance involved capturing an image every five minutes, and the reason for this is partly attributed to a lack of storage space, but also to comply with human rights legislation. We have heard many references made to metadata in the course of the NSA revelations, and this is a phrase that crops up here too. Agency staff were apparently limited to conducting bulk searches of just metadata, but the documents reveal that "webcam images associated with similar Yahoo identifiers to your known target" were also shown in results.

In true Person of Interest style, it appears that GCHQ was attempting to automate the process of searching for wanted targets by making use of facial recognition. But facial recognition would not be enough to deal with all of the nudity encountered by the agency in its spying. Sounding slightly prudish, one document includes the realization that "it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person".

Pornographic content seems to have presented something of an issue for GCHQ, with the agency discovering that webcams could "sometimes be used for broadcasting pornography" and an impressive 3 to 11 percent of captured content featuring "undesirable nudity". The good news -- if there can be any good news from a story that reveals webcam chats were being recorded -- is that disciplinary action hung over anyone caught disseminating any "offensive material" that may have been intercepted.

Yahoo insists it was completely unaware of the activities of GCHQ, issuing a statement to that effect:

We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity. This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy that is completely unacceptable, and we strongly call on the world's governments to reform surveillance law consistent with the principles we outlined in December. We are committed to preserving our users' trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services.

While for now it is Yahoo that is the center of attention, the documents reveal that GCHQ was also considering monitoring Kinect cameras connected to Xbox 360s.

It's hard to imagine how the surveillance revelation could get much worse, but as there are new surprises just about every month, perhaps we should brace ourselves for the revelation that our smartphone cameras are constantly recording every single thing we do. At least that would go some way to explaining flaky battery life...

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