GCHQ 'harvesting Yahoo webcam sex images'

News by Steve Gold

Some 1.8m sexually explicit webcam images have been harvested from Yahoo Webcams and stored by GCHQ according to The Guardian.

GCHQ has been accused by a national newspaper of harvesting 1.8 million Webcam images from Yahoo users over a lengthy period.

The Guardian - citing former NSA operative Edward Snowden-sourced (and leaked) documents from the UK's spy agency - says that Operation Optic Nerve collated the images from Yahoo users between 2008 and 2010. Yahoo has denied any knowledge of the project and describes it as a completely unacceptable privacy violation.

The paper points out that some of the Webcam images may include detail of an adult nature, noting that Yahoo's software allows more than one person to view a given video stream.  This raises the curious spectre of GCHQ staff viewing sexually explicit images as part of their job, SCMagazineUK.com notes. 

GCHQ, for its part, has not denied the Guardian report, saying that all of its work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework, which ensures that its activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate.

In its statement to the Guardian, the spy agency said that "there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee."

Digital forensics specialist Professor Peter Sommer - who is also a Visiting Professor at Leicester's de Montfort University - said that GCHQ's ability to harvest webcam images en-masse does not come as a surprise.

He told SCMagazineUK.com, however, that the agency's lack of forethought over the project does, however, surprise him.

"The argument for - that one might conceivably identify someone of interest via facial recognition technology - seems feeble against the costs of doing so, the likelihood of success and the obvious problems of collateral intrusion of privacy," he said. 

"There is also the high costs of initial acquisition, storage and processing of the data, along with the facial recognition plus the handling of the inevitably large numbers of false positives to deal with," he added.

Professor Sommer went on to say that there is the issue of GCHQ staff viewing obscene material to contend with.

Success, he explained, needs to measured against the harm that could be mitigated.

"Over the last few years, for example, there have been an average of seven terrorist deaths and 500 to 600 annual homicides taking place every year," he said.

Against this, he added, the question is whether a judgement about Operation Optic Nerve has been made within GCHQ, by its legal advisors or by Ministers who accept responsibility by signing off warrants.

Professor Sommer went on to question whether a judgement over the project has been made by the Commissioners and Intelligence Services Committee of Parliament – who are, he says, supposed to be exercising oversight in such cases.

Sarb Sembhi, an analyst and director of consulting with Incoming Thought, said that the webcam image harvesting programme is almost certainly to have been one of a great many relatively minor projects that are carried out within GCHQ, but which are then shelved once the programme has been completed.

"I find it quite amazing that they have been able to collate everything from the Webcams concerned, as, whilst it's clear they have been grabbing everything they can from Yahoo's systems, the question is what they can achieve with such large volumes of data," he said.

Sembhi added that the assertion that the Webcam images were harvested without analysis as to whether the images would be useful - and without selectively deleting those that were not useful - adds weight to suggestions that the project was a trial one. 

"It's clear from this that [GCHQ] was only in an early phase with this project. As well as having to deal with potentially vast amounts of data, it's also clear that they didn't really think the scale of the project through," he said. 

"I also suspect that most of the budget for the project will have been spent on storing the data, rather than analysing it," he added.


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