Report: NSA helped Brits collect webcam images

The National Security Agency (NSA) helped its British counterpart intercept and store images of millions of Internet users through their webcams, according to a published report.

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) program, codenamed Optic Nerve, was revealed by The Guardian based on documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.


The program targeted people using Yahoo’s service for chats via webcam. Spies collected still images of millions of people engaged in those chats, taken once every five minutes, and saved them on an agency database.

A substantial amount of the stored records included sexually explicit images.

“It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam companies to show intimate parts of their body to the other person,” one document noted.

As much as 11 percent of the collected images included “undesirable nudity,” the GCHQ claimed.

The documents obtained by The Guardian indicate that the British spy agency intended to use the images like a giant collection of mugshots.

"Face detection has the potential to aid selection of useful images for 'mugshots' or even for face recognition by assessing the angle of the face," the agency said in one document, according to The Guardian's report. "The best images are ones where the person is facing the camera with their face upright."

The collection of images that the GCHQ collected were processed and sent to systems provided by the NSA. The British agency also relied on the NSA’s research to build the computer tool that tracked traffic from Yahoo’s webcam chats.

Spies were reportedly limited in their ability to analyze the images. Searches of bulk records were limited to metadata, or information about the collected images. Analysts searching for specific surveillance targets, however, were allowed to look at the images of users with similar online names.

According to the documents, the GCHQ program began as a prototype in 2008 and was active through 2012. The agency would not have been able to make a distinction between British and American users of the webcam chat service. 

In a statement shared with The Hill, Yahoo claimed that it had no idea the GCHQ was running the program on its users.

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

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