British intelligence agency GCHQ intercepted and stored webcam images of millions of internet users, according to secret documents revealed by the Guardian.
A surveillance programme called Optic Nerve collected still images from Yahoo webcam chats and saved them to large databases within the agency, regardless of whether the users were suspected of any wrongdoing.
The documents also reveal that a substantial amount of the images collected were sexually explicit, with the agency struggling to keep these images from the eyes of its staff.
The Optic Nerve programme was in use from 2008 and was used for experiments in facial recognition, monitoring existing targets and discovering new ones. This technology could then be used to keep track of criminals and terror suspects using multiple anonymous IDs.
The programme was limited to taking one still image every five minutes from a user’s feed, rather than capture a whole video, which could overload the GCHQ servers.
Although the agency did try to limit analysts’ ability to see the webcam images, they still showed them the faces of people with similar usernames to surveillance targets, thus possibly allowing them to see hundreds of innocent people.
The system used by GCHQ was also tied in with America’s NSA, with staff able to use the NSA’s XKeyscore search tool to build up information on users.
The surveillance was done in bulk, with users described as “unselected”, meaning they were not chosen for any specific reason and could have been completely innocent.
Yahoo are reported to have had no knowledge of the surveillance, and are said to be furious at the breach of privacy.