Millions of Yahoo webcam users were hacked by a British intelligence agency, despite whether or not they were suspects of criminal activity. The agency collected video webcam images, many containing sexually explicit material, which were captured in bulk by the bureau’s fiber-optic cable taps and saved to their database.
Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) code-named the surveillance mission Optic Nerve and ran inquiries of the data received by using XKeyscore, a search tool supplied by the National Security Administration. Vanee Vines, a spokeswoman for the NSA, said the agency did not request its foreign partners such as the GCHQ to collect data that it could not legally retrieve itself.
Yahoo issued a statement Thursday saying that the company was not made aware of Britain’s agenda and was outraged at the violation of their users’ privacy. Yahoo continued by stating, “We strongly call on the world’s governments to reform surveillance law consistent with the principles we outlined in December.” The search engine giant plans to expand encryption on all of their services as of March 31.
A GCHQ document stated that a substantial number of the images captured consisted of overt nudity and Yahoo users often displayed intimate body parts during their webcam chats. The file also notes that between 3 and 11 percent of Yahoo webcam images accumulated contained sexually explicit material.
The agency did not attempt to thwart the assortment or storage of these lewd images, although GCHQ ultimately decided to exclude all imagery in which the software could not detect any faces from the results. Although an attempt was made to prevent analysts from viewing the explicit photos, an internal guide warned Optic Nerve agents that it was impossible to completely edit material “which may be offensive.”
The report, provided by Edward J. Snowden with The Guardian, did not include any information about images collected from similar services such as Microsoft’s Skype or Google Hangouts. Data was mentioned, however, about the agency considering using the cameras inside Microsoft’s Kinect products to spy on consumers. In addition, it was also revealed that the N.S.A. was exploring infiltrating video games like Second Life and World of Warcraft.
According to the documents, the British agency gathered Yahoo webcam images from more than 1.8 million user accounts worldwide over a sixth-month time span in 2008. Internal files confirmed that the Optic Nerve operation was still active in 2012.
Because the bureau has fewer restrictions than that of the United States, American images can be acquired by intelligence agencies in the UK without a warrant. The British agency also does not have the technical gear to filter out images from US citizens, which is why the organization has a massive amount of data to sort through when searching for a possible target. Furthermore, the contents of Yahoo webcam chats between people with user names that matched certain targets were easily viewed by British agents as they searched for possible threats. Facial recognition technology was also used in order to locate individuals resembling current targets.
Although many point the finger at the British agency for stealing images from Yahoo webcam users, part of the blame could be directed at Yahoo’s lack of security and for not property protecting its clients.
Editorial By Amy Nelson