In Brief

GCHQ intercepted 'intimate' Yahoo webcam images

Millions of webcam conversations were intercepted by spies, including many that involved nudity

BRITISH intelligence agents, assisted by their American counterparts, intercepted millions of private webcam conversations between people not suspected of any crime.

The latest revelations from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden published by The Guardian yesterday reveal that between 2008 and 2010, the UK intelligence agency GCHQ conducted a wide-ranging programme called Operation Optic Nerve to collect images from Yahoo webcam chats "whether individual users were an intelligence target or not".

In a six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency intercepted images from 1.8 million people, many of which contained sexually explicit material. The agency came to recognise the collection of such images as a problem.

One document said: "Unfortunately... it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person."

An estimated three to 11 per cent of the images collected by GCHQ contain "undesirable nudity".

Optic Nerve aimed to identify targets by running an early version of facial-recognition software over the harvested images. GCHQ focused its operation on Yahoo webchats because a number of terrorism suspects were believed to have used the service. Facial recognition was deployed to circumvent the problem of target users logging in with multiple accounts or pseudonyms.

Yahoo issued a forceful statement decrying the agency's behaviour, which it said was "completely unacceptable".

"We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity," said a 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.

"We are committed to preserving our users' trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services."

A GCHQ spokesman said in a statement that the agency was unable to comment on intelligence matters, but that all activities were carried out in accordance with the law.

"Our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and... there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee," the statement said.

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