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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."

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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.

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