It turns out that the global Big Brother spy system of the ‘Five Eyes’ group (consisting of the US’s NSA, British GCHQ, Australian Signals Directorate, Canada’s CSEC, and New Zealand) has been gathering and storing webcam traffic using a system called Optic Nerve. They sampled and stored images once every five minutes.
GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.
In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery – including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.
Yahoo reacted furiously to the webcam interception when approached by the Guardian. The company denied any prior knowledge of the program, accusing the agencies of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”.
This project seems like a voyeur’s dream.
The document estimates that between 3% and 11% of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested by GCHQ contains “undesirable nudity”.
The documents also chronicle GCHQ’s sustained struggle to keep the large store of sexually explicit imagery collected by Optic Nerve away from the eyes of its staff, though there is little discussion about the privacy implications of storing this material in the first place.
Apart from the wrongness of collecting this data in the first place, given the acknowledgment by James Clapper that they cannot keep this data secure and that there will likely be other Snowdens who gain access to it, what if that person does not have the high-minded motives of Snowden but uses it for blackmail or other self-enriching purposes, especially since the possibility of targeted searches of this database are possible? We already knew that NSA operatives were using their snooping powers to spy on their lovers, an operation known as LOVEINT.