It was reported yesterday that millions of random, international Yahoo users were spied on by Britain’s Government Communications Head quarters (GCHQ) between 2008 and 2010. As a result, tons of personally explicit and “adult” images were intercepted and exposed. The program which caused this privacy “breach,” entitled Optic Nerve, was carried out with the assistance of the US National Security Agency. As first reports rolled in this Thursday, it quickly become apparent this story is the result of leaked documents by famed US “defector” Edward Snowden.
According to Snowden’s documents, for a two-year period, the GCHQ’s Optic Nerve program captured and stored millions of Yahoo Messenger webcam images, including explicit sexual pictures – being deemed by Britain’s domestic spying agency as “undesirable nudity.” While, such “captures” may not have been the intended targets, up to 11 percent of these photos are very revealing. It seems the GCHQ did, at one point, attempt to place warnings on the program- advising staff members away from opening such items. However, this did not ultimately stop the lurid shots from falling onto government hands.
Of course, this report has many in outrage, not the least of which is Yahoo who have said they were not privy to such activity and do not agree with the GCHQ’s program. For them, Snowden’s findings, if valid: “[represent] a whole new level of violation…” The ACLU is also not happy with the report, calling it a: “truly shocking revelation.” According to the ACLU, these kinds of surveillance programs need to have public input and not be at the sole discretion of the government.
Although Yahoo denies any and all involvement in the Optic Nerve controversy, some aren’t convinced it’s doing enough to prevent such interceptions. ACLU technologist Christopher Soghoian is one who believes Yahoo itself could have prevented such a situation if they had taken greater security measures, stating that they: “… didn’t care about users enough to encrypt their webcam traffic.”
Optic Nerve, a security initiative which commenced operation in 2008, was designed to recognize specific targeted users through facial characteristics. However, much of the imagery captured, exposed millions of persons of non-interest and, apparently, their private parts. According to the GCHQ, Yahoo users were specifically addressed because the site’s software is: “…known to be used by GCHQ targets.”
Edward Snowden, who has outraged many for his “leakage,” uncovered that Yahoo webcam data was being compromised by the GCHQ’s Optic Nerve multiple times an hour for years. The program was made fully possible by the collaboration of both the US and the UK under a cooperative known as the UKUSA agreement – who also work with spying initiatives in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand under another umbrella known as the “Five Eyes” alliance.
Yahoo’s users, can without restriction, use their webcams however they deem fit. This can range from exchanging nude pictures to sexually explicit pornography. It seems, the very compromising Optic Nerve did not have the technology to always differentiate between harmless “chit chat” and “X-rated” material. As a result, millions of users have been exposed in more ways than one.
By Josh Taub