Newspaper article International New York Times

U.K. Said to Intercept Video Chats ; Vast Amount of Data Reportedly Gathered from Images Sent Via Yahoo

Newspaper article International New York Times

U.K. Said to Intercept Video Chats ; Vast Amount of Data Reportedly Gathered from Images Sent Via Yahoo

Article excerpt

Accounts based on documents supplied by Edward J. Snowden say images, many sexually explicit, were collected, even of users not suspected of anything.

A British intelligence agency collected video webcam images -- many of them sexually explicit -- from millions of Yahoo users, regardless of whether they were suspected of illegal activity, according to accounts of documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden.

The surveillance effort operated by Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, was code-named Optic Nerve. Images from Yahoo webcam chats were captured in bulk through the agency's fiber-optic cable taps and saved to a GCHQ database.

It is unclear how much of the data was shared with American officials at the National Security Agency, though the British ran queries on the data using a search tool provided by the N.S.A. called XKeyscore, according to a report on Thursday by The Guardian.

The report did not indicate whether the agency had also collected webcam images from similar services, such as Google Hangouts or Microsoft's Skype. The Guardian did say the British intelligence agency was studying the possibilities of using the cameras in Microsoft's Kinect devices, which are used with its Xbox game consoles, to spy on users.

Because the British agency lacked the technical means to filter out the content of British or American citizens, and because it faces fewer legal restrictions than the N.S.A. in the United States, documents show that the GCHQ was collecting vast amounts of webcam images. In one six-month period in 2008, the agency collected webcam images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally, including those of Americans, according to the Guardian report.

The British agency restricted its collection by saving one image every five minutes from users' feeds, partly to avoid overwhelming its servers. It also restricted its image searches to so-called metadata, information that tells analysts what content the files contain, such as the sender's and the receiver's usernames, file types, time, date and duration of their webcam chat.

But analysts were still able to view the contents of webcam chats between users whose usernames matched those of surveillance targets. One document instructs analysts that they are allowed to view "webcam images associated with similar Yahoo identifiers to your known target."

The agency also apparently experimented with facial-recognition technology, which searched webcam images for faces resembling those of GCHQ targets. One undated document shows that the agency shuttered this capability. It was unclear if or when it was resurrected. It is also unclear if the N.S.A. also had access to the metadata and images.

Yahoo said in a statement on Thursday that it was not aware of the program and expressed outrage at published reports. …

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