The British spy agency, aided by U.S. National Security Agency, captured and stored images from webcams of millions of Internet users worldwide who were not suspected of any malpractice, revealed secret documents released by The Guardian.
The archives of the British agency, dating from 2008 to 2010, detail the use of a coded programs that used optical technology to store images from Yahoo chat database. In just six months, the spies captured emissions of 1.8 million users, many sexually explicit.
Reports reveal that the agency took no steps to maintain sexual content away from its employees. The spying also lacked the means to prevent images of British and American citizens from being stored, as there is no legal restriction in the UK for access to this content without permission.
The sexually explicit material caused headaches specially for investigators:
“Unfortunately, a surprising number of users use the webcam to display intimate body parts. The fact that Yahoo allows more than one person to simultaneously view images without having to show their webcam also promotes pornography.” Up to 11% of the stored material contains “unwanted nudity ” .
Instead of storing full user video chats, the program kept images taken every five minutes to avoid overloading the servers of the agency. The documents describe users recorded as ” not selected.”
One report linked to a police espionage history of people who had been arrested on occasion: ” The Face detector has the potential to select useful images for police actions. The best ones are those in which the person is located opposite to the camera.”
Despite the police order, analysts had access to the faces of users with “similar patterns” to the objectives of surveillance, which would violated the privacy of a crowd of innocent citizens. Unlike the U.S. National Security Agency, its British partner has no legal obligation to minimize or eliminate their national information databases.
However, it requires additional regulatory approvals before analysts can find data of individuals who likely reside in the British Isles, a safeguard that does not exist for those who are in the United States, Australia, New Zealand or Canada.
The low efficiency and accumulation of massive audiovisual material warns about privacy risks that have always been present in the apparatus of British and American intelligence. “One of the major obstacles to using these files is that the vast majority of videos have no intelligence value, such as pornography, advertisements or family videos,” read a report written a decade ago.