NSA/GCHQ now revealed to be voyeurs as well

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.


  1. Félix Desrochers-Guérin says

    1. Buy a cheap webcam.
    2. Get a Yahoo! account.
    3. Print the grossest image you can find and put it in front of the webcam.
    4. Leave your webcam on and your computer logged into Yahoo! 24/7
    5. ???
    6. Profit!

  2. leni says

    Or if profit never happens you can at least get some satisfaction out of knowing that you probably grossed out some NSA creepers.

    Unless that’s what you mean by “profit”. In which case, foolproof plan!

  3. says

    Print the grossest image you can find and put it in front of the webcam.


    I’m trying to start a “jihadi pen-pal program” – swap emails with a real al-queda operative!!! Suddenly all your friends are much more interesting!

  4. Félix Desrochers-Guérin says

    If you browse Wikipedia’s medical section, you can find much, much worse than Goatse.

  5. Jonny Vincent says

    I wonder how much underaged imagery they have collected.

    I wonder if that’s not the sort of thing the program was intended to intercept? Not for law enforcement, but for leverage. With all the surveillance, they must have nearly every paedophile caught engaging in criminal activity, but no round up?

    Perhaps they’re waiting for incriminated individuals to be worth squeezing, and they’ll just let them continue without intervention until then. There may have been a Church program that operated like this, involving Confessional Boxes, Last Rites and creeps giving comfort to those they had frightened into confessing; but I don’t know that much about it.

  6. wtfwhateverd00d says

    My understanding of this is that NSA/GCHQ had a filter on an existing tap of all Internet traffic that singled out webcam imagery from Yahoo.

    That is, they didn’t reach into your bedroom and turn on the camera, they just sniffed what was on the line.

    So in a sense, that’s a relief. They aren’t turning on random webcams. (IIRC I believe at least one recent document claims they can do that on your iPhone.)

    On the other hand, it’s the Internet Tap that is critical here. Just as Optic Nerve might sniff and put together webcam traffic, it also means other filters can exist to put together wordpress traffic. A Wordy Nerve for example. Or email. Or any sort of unencrypted traffic (or encrypted traffic that they have compromised.)

    This is aided and abetted by the use of gravatars which uniquely identify with an MD5 hash of the submitted email address of every post on most wordpress blogs.

    Any one that claims to be truly concerned with the privacy of their readers against the NSA or GCHQ would as of now turn off the gravatar and either turn off the submitted email field or recommend all users change their submitted emails.

    To fail to do this indicates either an ignorance of the actual issues, or a lack of actual caring about user privacy.

  7. JohnE says

    Author Charles Stross has an interesting take on this at http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2014/02/rule-34-meet-kafka.html
    where he points out:

    “More hilariously, GCHQ is not a law enforcement agency but part of the defense establishment, and the UK has one of the most draconian child pornography laws in the developed world. Possession of child pornography images is a strict liability offence — intent has no bearing. Only a handful of categories of people are permitted to possess this material: police investigating a crime, some forensics specialists, lawyers and judges and other people involved in a trial. GCHQ personnel stumbling across images of child abuse could be committing a criminal offence. And possession or dissemination of indecent material (pornographic but not criminal stuff) on government computers?”

  8. says

    Not for law enforcement, but for leverage.

    Bingo. So, when the FBI investigates David Petraeus for doing something that’s not a crime (adultery? really?) they were able to get years’ worth of back-emails to troll through. Where did that come from? So, a potential political character gets taken off the table; how convenient.(*) And what about Eliot Spitzner? How did they get all his old charge records? And now we know that GCHQ helped break lulzsec, including doing DOS attacks. If I did that, it’d be a crime.

    Anyhow – you are completely right – this represents an aggregation of the reins of power, which makes them easier to take over.

    (* Personally I am glad about that but I don’t like the implications)

  9. TxSkeptic says

    Félix @ #2 – “Print the grossest image you can find and put it in front of the webcam”

    But shouldn’t the pictures include some photoshopping involving James Clapper?
    (three extra eyes on the end of penises growing from his face, where they are tea-bagging him? Damn, I wish I had photoshop skills)

    Jonny @ #7 – “Not for law enforcement, but for leverage.”
    I always wondered how Dick Cheney got practically the entire congress to go along with the Patriot Act, sight unseen, without significant leverage. I don’t think for a second this kind of collection wasn’t going on before 9/11.

  10. says

    Spyware used to refer solely to software, but now it will have to mean hardware too – webcams, phones, etc.

    For years, the first thing I did when sitting at a computer was to turn the webcam away from me or put a post it over the lens if it was built in. People thought I was paranoid, but I simply don’t like being photographed. Now I’m glad that I did and do that.

    It’s hard to find a computer nowadays that doesn’t have a built in camera.

  11. Nick Gotts says

    In 1984, you couldn’t turn the telescreen off, but at least you knew you might be being watched – and they had to do it in real time.

  12. John Morales says

    There’s a tradition of that sort of thing, J. Edgar Hoover being an exemplar of it.

    DonDueed @1:

    What is “undesirable nudity”? Naked ugly people?

    In context, pretty clearly nudity which was intended to remain private, so that it is undesirable that third parties would be privy to it.

  13. hyphenman says

    Good evening Mano,

    Here’s what I wonder, several years ago a school system bought laptops for its students and then it was discovered that an employee knew how to remotely turn on the installed cameras and was spying on the students. Lawsuits, of course, followed.

    Can there be any doubt that the NSA and GCHQ know how to turn on any installed camera (including those on cell phones) remotely?

    (And yes, when I bought my laptop, one of the first actions I took was to tape over my installed webcam.)

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  14. Mano Singham says


    In one past Snowden document, it said that the NSA could turn on people’s webcams without them knowing and had done so.


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