LONDON Feb 27 Britain's spy agency GCHQ
intercepted millions of people's webcam chats and stored still
images of them, including sexually explicit ones, the Guardian
newspaper reported on Thursday.
GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 provided to the
newspaper by the former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)
contractor Edward Snowden, revealed that the surveillance
programme, codenamed Optic Nerve, saved one image every five
minutes from randomly selected Yahoo webcam chats and
stored them on agency databases.
Optic Nerve, which began as a prototype in 2008 and was
still active in 2012, was intended to test automated facial
recognition, monitor GCHQ's targets and uncover new ones, the
Under British law, there are no restrictions preventing
images of U.S. citizens being accessed by British intelligence,
GCHQ collected images from the webcam chats of over 1.8
million users globally in a six-month period in 2008 alone.
"It is a long-standing policy that we do not comment on
intelligence matters," a GCHQ spokesperson said on Thursday.
In another sign of the widespread information-sharing
between U.S. and UK spy agencies which has riled public and
politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, the webcam
information was fed into the NSA's search tool and all of the
policy documents were available to NSA analysts, the paper said.
However it was not clear whether the NSA had access to the
actual database of Yahoo webcam images, it added.
Snowden, now in Russia after fleeing the United States, made
world headlines last summer when he provided details of NSA
surveillance programs to the Guardian and the Washington Post.
For decades, the NSA and GCHQ have worked as close partners,
sharing intelligence under an arrangement known as the UKUSA
agreement. They also collaborate with eavesdropping agencies in
Canada, Australia and New Zealand under an arrangement known as
the "Five Eyes" alliance.
Under Optic Nerve, GCHQ tried to limit its staff's ability
to see the webcam images, but they could still see the images of
people with similar usernames to intelligence targets, the
GCHQ also implemented restrictions on the collection of
sexually explicit images, but its software was not always able
to distinguish between these and other images.
"Discussing efforts to make the interface "safer to use", it
(GCHQ) noted that current "naïve" pornography detectors assessed
the amount of flesh in any given shot, and so attracted lots of
false positives by incorrectly tagging shots of people's faces
as pornography," the newspaper said.
The spy agency eventually excluded images in which the
software had not detected any faces from search results to
prevent staff from accessing explicit images, it added.