British spy agency’s Peeping Tom exploits exposed

Posted: March 6, 2014

British and US security agencies have once again astonished the international press this week with their invasive snooping exploits, after it emerged an impressive porn stash has been accumulated at the expense of unsuspecting Yahoo chat users.

Internal documents obtained by the Guardian show that under a secret program named ‘Optic Nerve’, the UK’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) hoarded several million still images from Yahoo chat’s webcam users between 2008 and 2012 without the user’s knowledge. It is estimated that between 3 and 11 percent of the images collected the by GCHQ contained nudity.

The agency worked with the assistance of America’s NSA, the documents revealed, to conduct an indiscriminate surveillance program manned by government agents and contractors. Fugitive whistleblower, Edward Snowden, was one of those intelligence workers.

“In one six-month period in 2008 alone,” wrote the Guardian, “the agency collected webcam imagery – including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.”

“We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity,” said a Yahoo spokeswoman. “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.”

Apparently, the agencies involved were surprised by the prevalence of nudity on the network, as one of the documents notes, “Unfortunately…it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.”

Cursory efforts were made to create a system that was reduced the amount of pornographic content saved through use of ‘pornography detectors’. According to the Associated Press, one such filter attempted to assess the amount of flesh in a shot as a means of assessing the level of nudity. This reportedly resulted in many false positives, as the software couldn’t differentiate faces from other body parts. So, the GCHQ filters also included face recognition software that excluded shots in which no faces had been detected. Suffice to say, this was little assurance for porn-free snooping.

Addressing intelligence workers on conduct in relation to the program, the documents obtained by the Guardian read, “We use face detection to try to censor material which may be offensive but this does not work perfectly so you should read the following before using Optic Nerve: It is possible to handle and display undesirable images. There is no perfect ability to censor materials which may be offensive. Users who feel uncomfortable about such material are advised not to open them.” The documents continued, “You are reminded that under GCHQ’s offensive material policy, the dissemination of offensive material is a disciplinary offence.”

While the saved data was not of sessions in their entirety, with one image saved every five minutes from the users’ feeds, the lack of discrimination in the agency’s targeting will have many innocent chat users feeling vulnerable.

The GCHQ reportedly insists that “all of its activities are necessary, proportionate, and in accordance with UK law.” Three U.S. senators have already begged to differ so far, however, in a joint statement regarding the program’s “breathtaking lack of respect for privacy and civil liberties.”

A statement from GCHQ said “All of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position.”

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