The UK government spied on millions of Yahoo webcam users and secretly took photos during conversations before storing them for analysis, it has been revealed.
The revelations were published by the Guardian, based on Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden. They represent some of the most disturbing insights into bulk data surveillance carried out by the UK’s spy agency so far.
The programme, called Optic Nerve, gathered a vast number of user images every five minutes, without any specific target. The data was then used to help agents potentially identify their targets by cross-referencing the images with those already on its databases.
"Face detection has the potential to aid selection of useful images for 'mugshots' or even for face recognition by assessing the angle of the face," reads the GCHQ document. "The best images are ones where the person is facing the camera with their face upright."
The document from which the information was taken dated between 2008 and 2010 and was said to have targeted as many as 1.8 million users around the world in one six-month period.
The document also revealed that the GCHQ has gathered vast amounts of explicit images of users. “It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,” it wrote.
“Also, the fact that the Yahoo software allows more than one person to view a webcam stream without necessarily sending a reciprocal stream means that it appears sometimes to be used for broadcasting pornography."
Yahoo was understandably outraged with the report, issuing a statement saying it was “a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy that is completely unacceptable".
“We strongly call on the world's governments to reform surveillance law consistent with the principles we outlined in December,” it added.
The latest revelations only serve to underline the extent of spying that Snowden revealed when he leaked documents to the public last summer. Other major incidents that have come to light include the monitoring of world leaders' phones and the tapping of global telecoms networks to siphon off data.
Dan Worth is the news editor for V3 having first joined the site as a reporter in November 2009. He specialises in a raft of areas including fixed and mobile telecoms, data protection, social media and government IT. Before joining V3 Dan covered communications technology, data handling and resilience in the emergency services sector on the BAPCO Journal.