GCHQ, the British version of the NSA created a program around 2008 that hacked into Yahoo’s network and captured stills of video chats being conducted by Yahoo users. So as not to overload GCHQ’s servers, the software only stored one image per video session every 5 minutes. Still, in a 6 month period, they captured images from 1.8 million Yahoo user’s accounts.
The plan was to use the data to test image recognition software so that they could find images of people LIKE the person they were looking for.
Yahoo said that they were not cooperating in this program.
GCHQ that they had no way to filter out the images of UK or US citizens – they just stored that data along with all the other images.
But there was a problem that they had not counted on.
Lots of people use chat sessions to share “undesirable body parts” to the person on the other end – in other words, nude selfies.
What’s more, they had no way to filter these images out and did not try to.
Which, apparently, was perfectly fine with GCHQ analysts. Rumor has it that there was significant “sharing” of these undesirable images. Apparently, while GCHQ brass thought the images to be undesirable, the GCHQ staff found them quite desirable. The brass told the staff that sharing undesirable pictures could result in discipline. It is not clear if anyone was ever disciplined for that.
The program started in 2008 and through 2010 collected images without regard to whether they had any intelligence value. In Snowden documents, it was revealed that the program was still active in 2012. Whether this program or a similar one still exists is unknown, so maybe you should keep your clothes on while video chatting.
When the Guardian asked the NSA about the program, they had no comment.
In addition, unlike the NSA’s requirement to minimize the capture of data (or undesirable body parts) of U.S. citizens, GCHQ has no such restriction regarding U.K. citizens. The NSA said that they did not ask GCHQ to collect data that the NSA could not legally collect themselves. It did not say if they accepted those images if they were made available.
The NSA also did not say if they had any similar programs – of course, I would not expect them to answer that question.
Yahoo was not the only target; apparently video from Microsoft Xbox game consoles was also targeted.
Likely none of these activities is illegal, but people may want to reconsider, if they care, what body parts, desirable or not, they expose on webcam sessions going forward.
Information for this post came from The Guardian.