British spy agency GCHQ, with the help of its American buddy the National Security Agency, collected the webcam images, including sexually explicit content, from millions of Yahoo users across the globe, according to a report from The Guardian.
The images were seized and stored in bulk beginning in 2008 despite no evidence of wrongdoing, documents former NSA contractor Edward Snowden turned over to The Guardian have revealed. In fact, the secret program, codenamed Optic Nerve, amassed images from 1.8 million Yahoo users in only six months, the documents showed. The program, according to the documents, was still active in 2012, so potentially, the cache of content could number in the tens of millions.
Yahoo is outraged by what it is calling “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy.”
“We were not aware of nor would we condone this reported activity,” a Yahoo spokesperson told CNet, adding that such actions are “completely unacceptable.”
“We strongly call on the world’s governments to reform surveillance law consistent with the principles we outlined in December,” the spokesperson said. “We are committed to preserving our users’ trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services.”
According to The Guardian, GCHQ does not have the technical resources to ensure images of U.K. citizens as well as those from the U.S., Canada and Australia (all British allies), are not accessed by the agency’s analysts without a warrant.
The documents also details the British spy agency’s ongoing efforts to keep the stockpile of sexually explicit content, which makes up as much as 11 percent of the webcam videos, out of the hands of its staff, although little is said about the privacy violations of collecting such content.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has been outspoken about her disdain for the collection of users’ data.
During a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama last December, she told him the fallout from revelations about the National Security Agency’s spy programs could hurt the economy.
She also told Obama the hostile response of people around the globe to the U.S.’s spying “threatens to Balkanize the Internet.”
Since Snowden leaked details about the PRISM program last summer, Internet firms have banded together to demand the Obama administration significantly increase transparency when it comes to federal surveillance programs.
The companies last July requested Internet, telephone, and Web-based service providers be granted permission to report in detail national security letter requests from federal law enforcement agencies. And, although the companies have been granted some leeway in what they report, many, including Yahoo have said more transparency is needed.