Internet giant Yahoo has expressed its shock at claims that spy agencies intercepted and stored webcam images of millions of users, describing it as a “whole new level of violation”.
The revelations were disclosed by The Guardian in its latest report on files leaked by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, in which the paper claims Britain’s GCHQ and its US counterpart National Security Agency collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk.
Codenamed Optic Nerve, the operation, which began as a prototype in 2008 and was still active in 2012, saved images to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were suspected of wrongdoing, the newspaper claims.
In one six-month period during 2008 and 2010, GCHQ collected webcam imagery – including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts around the world.
A previously top-secret document, found among 58,000 files taken by Mr Snowden, the former NSA contractor who fled to Russia, via Hong Kong, after leaking the information to four locations worldwide, said: “Unfortunately … it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.
“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.”
A Yahoo spokeswoman said: “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.”
Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “Secretly intercepting and taking photographs from millions of people’s webcam chats is as creepy as it gets.
“We have CCTV on our streets and now we have GCHQ in our homes.
“This is an indiscriminate and intimate intrusion on people’s privacy.
“Orwell’s 1984 was supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual.”
GCHQ has refused to comment on the claims.