UPDATED: Intelligence officials secretly collected private Yahoo video chat images

BY Jordan Vesey  February 27, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
New documents reveal a British security agency collected millions of images of Yahoo video chat users through a clandestine program called "Optic Nerve."

New documents reveal a British security agency collected millions of images of Yahoo video chat users through a clandestine program called “Optic Nerve.”

Updated 6:15 p.m. ET

A NSA spokesperson, late today, emailed the following statement to the NewsHour:

“As we’ve said before, the National Security Agency does not ask its foreign partners to undertake any intelligence activity that the U.S. Government would be legally prohibited from undertaking itself. NSA works with a number of partners in meeting its foreign-intelligence mission goals, and those operations comply with U.S. law and with the applicable laws under which those partners operate. A key part of the protections that apply to both U.S. persons and citizens of other countries is the mandate that information be in support of a valid foreign intelligence requirement, and comply with U.S. Attorney General-approved procedures to protect privacy rights. Those procedures govern the acquisition, use, and retention of information about U.S. persons.”

A Yahoo spokesperson also emailed the following statement to the NewsHour:

“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.”

Tonight on the NewsHour, Senior Correspondent Hari Sreenivasan talked with The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman about the “Optic Nerve” covert program.

Video by PBS NewsHour

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It might be time to disconnect the webcam from your computer.

The British surveillance agency GCHQ, in coordination with the U.S. National Security Agency, collected and stored webcam images of millions of Yahoo chat users between 2008 and 2010, according to a report in the Guardian.

During a six month period in 2008 a program named “Optic Nerve” collected images of approximately 1.8 million users alone. The agency then stored these images in databases for bulk inspection. The program, which saved one image every five minutes during users’ conversations, was conducted without Yahoo’s knowledge, and the company has strongly condemned the operation.

“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,” Yahoo said in a written statement to the Guardian.

“We are committed to preserving our users’ trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services.”

The report originated from secret documents first revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Analysts’ access to these webcam images was limited to displaying metadata only when conducting bulk searches. However, they were allowed to see the faces of people who had similar usernames as surveillance targets. This was done to experiment with automated facial recognition software in order to monitor current targets and discover new ones.

The bottom line: millions of civilians with no criminal record had their private video chat conversations cataloged by intelligence officials, and many were directly viewed by agents.

In addition, the report cites that “a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of the body to the other person”. After conducting a survey, GCHQ estimated that between 3% and 11% of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested was sexually explicit.

There is no indication in the documents leaked that GCHQ made any attempts to prevent the collection or storage of explicit images, though eventually the system’s designers began to exclude images that didn’t contain a detectable human face.

Although the operation was conducted by a British intelligence agency, the program collected global Yahoo users’ data, meaning that millions of Americans may have had their photos captured. The Guardian writes “there are no restrictions under UK law to prevent Americans’ images being accessed by British analysts without an individual warrant”.

Furthermore an internal guide for GCHQ staff cautioned Optic Nerve users “there is no perfect ability to censor material which may be offensive. Users who may feel uncomfortable about such material are advised not to open them”.