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GCHQ peered into millions of Yahoo video chats

Updated Grabbed screenshots every five minutes
Thu Feb 27 2014, 17:33
This Yahoo duck looks suitably appalled

UK SPY AGENCY Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) broke into millions of people's Yahoo accounts, watched their webcam chats and took photos of participants.

The ugly tale comes from the Guardian and is part of a series of revelations by government surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The Guardian reported that a system called Optic Nerve was in operation between 2008 and 2012 and had the remit of intercepting and storing webcam images from Yahoo. The fruits of the Optic Nerve network is data that represents the combined work of the US National Security Agency and the GHCQ.

Documents show the agency claiming Optic Nerve's existence and capabilities. The Guardian reported that even video sessions including sexual activity were observed and that in just one six-month period 1.8 million Yahoo users were affected.

"Unfortunately ... it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person," explained the Optic Nerve briefing.

"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."

Optic Nerve would automatically collect one screengrab every five minutes, the newspaper added, and the agencies worried about how they could keep the juicy ones - between three and 11 percent included "undesirable nudity" - out of the hands of their drones.

The 'mugshot' was the preferred kind of picture collected though, perhaps for obvious reasons. "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," explained the document. "The best images are ones where the person is facing the camera with their face upright."

Yahoo was shocked by the report, and told The INQUIRER that it would not have happened with its knowledge.

"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," said Yahoo when presented with the information.

"We are committed to preserving our users' trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services."

A GCHQ equivalent told the newspaper, "It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters."

Other documents released this week show the intelligence agencies infesting the internet so as to disseminate and spread rumours and spoil reputations.

A GCHQ document published by, shows the work of a previously secret unit, called JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group).

JTRIG saw the NSA and GCHQ infiltrate groups on the internet, commit false flag attacks and spread false rumours and misleading information, while at the same time they would be wagging the dog and manipulating discussion, activism, dissent and discourse.

Loz Kaye, leader of the UK Pirate Party, was shocked by the Guardian report and the ramifications of its claims.

"I thought I couldn't be shocked any more by the latest news of how GCHQ and the NSA have been betraying our trust. But the thought of the security services directly spying into people's homes sends a shiver down the spine. It's been claimed that ordinary people have nothing to fear from these programmes and that the Snowden files aren't relevant to their lives. But you can't get more relevant than spooks thinking looking at your genitals is part of their job," he said.

Kaye added that the 'framework' that the activity exists in is broken. "The authorities keep on saying that this is happening in a 'strict legal framework'. If that is true surely these stomach churning revelations show that there is something fundamentally wrong with that framework," he said.

"This is the poisonous legacy of Blair years and the climate of fear that has eroded our civil liberties. It's time to set a different course, and reject blanket surveillance." µ


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