The latest of the Snowden leaks may be the most salacious. The Guardian reports that Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ ran a program called Optic Nerve that intercepted millions of Yahoo users’ video chats. It wasn’t targeted surveillance; GCHQ put out a digital net on via its Internet cable taps to capture everything it could. The Guardian doesn’t report on whether the image capture, which was experimentally combined with facial recognition, ever netted a terrorist. What it did net was a “surprising” amount of “offensive material,” a.k.a. sexy chat-time.
“Unfortunately … it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,” says a GCHQ report on Optic Nerve’s progress cited by the Guardian which complained that between 3% and 11% of webcam screenshots grabbed contained “undesirable nudity.”
GCHQ staff reviewing the Yahoo images were warned that they might encounter these “potentially undesirable images” and that they shouldn’t go trawling through the images if they feel uncomfortable seeing long-distance lovers in states of undress. They’re also reminded that the “dissemination of offensive material is a disciplinary offense.” In other words, it’s not cool to forward a naked hottie’s webcam image (stolen from Internet cables) on to your buddies.
The agency did respect the dignity of the unsuspecting webcam chatters by capturing stills rather than whole video streams, but that was as much about storage space as privacy concerns. “The program saved one image every five minutes from the users’ feeds,” write the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman and James Ball, “partly to comply with human rights legislation, and also to avoid overloading GCHQ’s servers.”
The documents, which are from 2008 to 2010, and say that images from 1.8 million Yahoo users was collected in just one 6-month period in 2008. Yahoo was “furious” when the Guardian told them about the Optic Nerve program. The documents also mention an interest in capturing images from the Xbox 360′s Kinect camera, reports the Guardian.
Privacy lesson of the day: Make sure your sexy-time chats are conducted via encrypted video streams.