Skip to main content

Report: UK spy agency intercepted millions of webcam chats, stored images

By Chelsea J. Carter and Alexander Felton, CNN
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "We are not aware nor would we condone this reported activity," a Yahoo official says
  • A British agency ollected digital images of webcam chats, the Guardian reports
  • The agency collected images of people whether or not they were targets, the news agency says
  • The report was based on documents eaked by Edward Snowden, the Guardian reports

London (CNN) -- Yahoo is slamming as "completely unacceptable" a British agency's alleged collection of digital images while eavesdropping on webcam chats, a spokesperson for the Internet search engine said Thursday.

And Yahoo says if the electronic spying took place, the online mainstay had nothing to do with it.

"We are not aware nor would we condone this reported activity," the spokesperson said following a published report by the UK-based Guardian newspaper that Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, known as GCHQ, spied on people using Yahoo webcam chats, whether or not those users were investigative targets.

According to the Guardian report, which cites documents leaked by former National Security Agency intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the GCHQ collected the images under a program known as "Optic Nerve."

Yahoo users' web cam pics intercepted
The trick behind Snowden leaks revealed
NSA reform and Edward Snowden

The documents show, according to the Guardian, that the GCHQ -- with reported aid from the U.S. National Security Agency -- intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of Internet users.

If the report is true, it is "completely unacceptable," the Yahoo spokesperson said.

The mass collection of digital images of Yahoo users began because GCHQ targets were known to use the search engine's webcam, the documents said, according to the Guardian.

During a six-month stretch in 2008, the GCHQ allegedly collected images from webcam chats from 1.8 million Yahoo users globally, the newspaper reported.

The still images were allegedly collected at five`-minute intervals during the chats. One document, according to the Guardian, compared the collection of digital images to that of a massive digital police mugshot book.

GCHQ declined to speak to the allegations, citing a longstanding policy that it does not comment on intelligence matters.

"Furthermore, all of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework, which ensures that our activities are authorized, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight," according to a statement released by the agency's press office.

GCHQ is not bound by the same rules that seek to limit the NSA collection of information on its citizens. However, according to the Guardian, there are additional legal authorizations required before the agency can search for data on suspected targets in believed to be in Britain.

According to the documents, there was no mechanism in place to block the collection of data on U.S. and U.K. citizens, the Guardian reported.

The leaked documents also allegedly provided insight into how the spy agency grappled with how to deal with the pornography it encountered in webcam chats.

"Unfortunately, it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate part of their body to the other person," one document said, according to the Guardian.

The GCHQ estimated that up to 11% of the digital images it collected from the webcam chats were explicit, the Guardian reported, citing the leaked documents.

As a result, the GCHQ allegedly warned its analysts that some of the material collected may be offensive.

"User who feel uncomfortable about such material are advised not to open them," one document said, according to the Guardian.

CNN's Joe Sutton contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, shot while standing guard at Ottawa's National War Memorial, was known for his easygoing manner and smile.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Non-stop chatter about actress' appearance is nasty, cruel, hurtful, invasive and sexist.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2058 GMT (0458 HKT)
Air New Zealand's new 'Hobbit' safety video stars Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood, elves and orcs.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
A 15-year-old pregnant girl is rescued from slavery, only to be charged with having sex outside of marriage, shocked rights activists say -- a charge potentially punishable by death.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 0333 GMT (1133 HKT)
After sushi and ramen, beef is on the list of must-eats for many visitors to Japan.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Airports judged on comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1748 GMT (0148 HKT)
Scientists use CT scans to recreate a life-size image of the ancient king.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)
Despite billions spent on eradicating poppy production, Afghan farmers are growing bumper crops, a U.S. government report says.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
With so many new attractions on the way, the next few years are going to be a roller coaster ride.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
Thomas Malthus famously predicted that rising populations would create a food crunch: Could this be true?
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1033 GMT (1833 HKT)
From "Sick Man of Europe" to the world's fourth largest economy.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT