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UK Spies Monitored Hundreds of Thousands of WebCam Chats

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The UK spy agency, GCHQ was able to tap into webcam conversations running over Yahoo! webservers and capture images from them for its own surveillance programme, according to documents from the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

The files released to The Guardian newspaper paint a picture of a project, codenamed Optic Nerve that was able to monitor the webcam chats of anyone using the Yahoo! service, regardless of their geographic location.

It would appear that the GCHQ software was using a facial recognition software to identify when a person was having a conversation, and then it took still images from the webcam chat every 5 minutes.

To minimize voyeuristic use by the spies, only the meta data was routinely checked by agents, although it seems they could then request copies of specific images. However, if a known username was online, then photos could be accessed immediately, as could photos of potentially unrelated people who had similar usernames.

Yahoo was targeted, according to the documents because specific individuals the spies wanted to track were known to use that service. However, in order to track the few targets, many hundreds of thousands of other people will have had the webcam chats monitored.

Yahoo described the intrusion into its webcam platform as "a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy".

The project was still active until at least 2012, when the leaked documents date from. It's not known if it is still ongoing.

GCHQ insists all of its activities are necessary, proportionate, and in accordance with UK law.

On the web: The Guardian

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Tags: gchq  yahoo  nsa  UK