GCHQ has been accused of intercepting and storing Yahoo webcam images of millions of internet users in what American internet giant has labelled a ‘whole new level of violation of our user’s privacy’.
The British intelligence agency, in collaboration with the US national Security Agency, is alleged by the guardian to have operated a clandestine operation codenamed Optic Nerve, which gathered data from millions of people between 2008 and 2010 who were not suspected of any wrongdoing.
Such was the scale of the operation that in one six month period alone more than 1.8m Yahoo accounts were intercepted in this manner, gathering vast quantities of material – much of it sexually explicit.
The nationality of the victims is not clear but there are no technical systems in place to distil out UK and US citizens from the sweeps.
A statement issued by GCHQ read: “… 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.”
Optic Nerve began as an experiment in 2008 to test automated facial recognition systems, as well as monitor existing targets and locate suspects making use of multiple IDs by taking snapshots of ‘unselected’ transmissions at random.