Are U.S., U.K. Spies At the Other End of Your Yahoo Webcam Stream?

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Uh oh. We’ve run into yet another case of government spy agencies hovering where they don’t belong — and this time, Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) is the Internet company involved. According to the Guardian’s report Thursday, secret documents have revealed that Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ, assisted by the U.S. National Security Agency, intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of internet users that were not necessarily suspected to have been implicated in any wrongdoing. According to reports, many of the privacy violations involved the tracking of sexually explicit images, and private files reveal that from 2008 to 2010, a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve amassed still images of Yahoo webcam chats to save them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.

When informed of the news, the Guardian reports that Yahoo executives were incensed by the reports, and they maintained that they had no prior knowledge that such a program was in operation. Millions of Yahoo users accounts are expected to have been affected, especially considering in one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally, and Yahoo has since accused the agencies of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy.”

According to Fox News, the secret program that U.S. and UK government agencies used to collect their images is Optic Nerve, a service that works to organize a digital scrapbook of screenshots taken every 5 minutes from user feeds. Though the program can be useful for targeting potential criminals, if employed irresponsibly, it can violate those people’s privacies whose webcams are being monitored regardless of whether they’re an intelligence target or not.

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