UK agency ‘ spied on intimate web chat’

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UK spy agency GCHQ has harvested webcam images – including sexually explicit material – from millions of internet users.

In its latest report on files leaked by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Guardian newspaper claims a surveillance programme operated by GCHQ, with aid from America’s National Security Agency (NSA), collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats.

Between three per cent and 11 per cent of the Yahoo webcam imagery contains “undesirable nudity”, the documents reveal.

Yahoo reacted furiously to the claims, branding them a “whole new level of violation”.

Revealing that sexually explicit pictures proved to be a problem for GCHQ, the leaked document said: “Unfortunately... it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.”

Codenamed Optic Nerve, the operation saved images to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were suspected of wrongdoing. Between 2008 and 2010, the GCHQ collected webcam imagery – including sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.

A Yahoo spokeswoman said: “This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable and we strongly call on the world’s governments to reform surveillance law consistent with the principles we outlined in December.

Reacting to the latest disclosures, MP David Davis said: “We now know that millions of Yahoo account holders were filmed without their knowledge through their webcams, the images of which were subsequently stored by GCHQ and the NSA.

“This is, frankly, creepy.”

Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties campaigner group Big Brother Watch, said: “Orwell’s 1984 was supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual.”

GCHQ declined to comment.