New Revelation: NSA Spying on Webcam Chats

The revelations continue to come out from the documents Edward Snowden leaked to the Guardian. My former AINN colleague Spencer Ackerman, now the national security editor for that paper, told NPR about documents that show the NSA and the British intelligence agencies have eavesdropped on millions of webcam chats:

BLOCK: This is a program that was called Optic Nerve. Why don’t you describe what was collected?

ACKERMAN: Sure. So Optic Nerve was a program to collect specifically imagery and associated metadata from Yahoo! webcam chats. This was collected in bulk from GCHQ, the British Intelligence Service, the British surveillances services, a broad sweep along with NSA of vast amounts of data taken in transit across the Internet. And when facial recognition software from Optic Nerve was applied to all of this webcam data, the idea was supposed to be that intelligence analysts could potentially get the images of people that they might have as intelligence targets.

BLOCK: And what timeframe are we talking about? Any idea how many images were collected?

ACKERMAN: Well, in one particular six month timeframe in 2008, the imagery of 1.5 million Yahoo! users was collected. That’s not necessarily the same as 1.5 million people because it’s possible that one person could have multiple Yahoo! user IDs, but chances are it’s in a similar ballpark.

BLOCK: Why just Yahoo!?

ACKERMAN: According to GCHQ documents that we have, intelligence targets of the GCHQ were frequent Yahoo! webcam users. Additionally, during the mid 2000s, around the time that it seems this program was developed, that was the number on online video chat that was being used. So they seemed to have gone after bulk Yahoo! webcam information because of that…

BLOCK: You know, there’s an interesting part of your story in these documents that you reveal where the British surveillance agency is saying a surprising number of users used the Yahoo! webcam chat to show intimate parts of their body and they were unable to censor those out. They were warning the people in the agency that they might be finding material that was offensive to them.

ACKERMAN: That’s right. It remains one of the more bureaucratic descriptions of salacious material that I’ve ever encountered. It’s not exactly bodice-ripper type of stuff. It is, however, worth noting that GCHQ, according to these documents, viewed the collection of pornography or other sexually explicit images as a problem for their collection because, in theory, it distracts people for reasons that perhaps we’ll let go unsaid, from finding their actual intelligence targets or developing a more fulsome picture of them.

It’s incredible to me that most Americans aren’t more outraged by this. They spied on a staggering number of people doing webcam chats. Even if they got information using facial recognition software that allowed them to spy on a tiny number of people planning to do bad things, it still isn’t remotely constitutional. I have no doubt that if we let the government put cameras in everyone’s houses, they would catch a lot more criminals breaking the law than they do now. But they can’t do that because the constitution clearly forbids it. Well it clearly forbids this too, for crying out loud.

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  • d.c.wilson

    And the NSA discovered that lots of people get naked in front of their web cams! Who’da thought?

  • Marcus Ranum

    Think of all the underaged video they are collecting!

    They must have the biggest pornstash ever; ironic it’s in Utah.

  • Marcus Ranum

    I am really afraid that all Snowden’s disclosures will accomplish is a shifting of the Overton Window even more toward the acceptability of the surveillance state. People seem to just not care. It’s really disturbing.

  • D. C. Sessions

    We’re just rebalancing the Bill of Rights, Ed. The Second Amendment clearly applies to any state-of-the-art military weapon of the current times, unlike the silly idea that it only covers muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets. In contrast, it’s clear that the First Amendment only applies to hand-set lead type and face-to-face speech; as soon as electronics get involved the Founders are silent.

    Similarly, the Fourth covers “persons, places, things, and effects.” Which means what the Founders obviously thought: your desk is not searchable, but your laptop is fair game. We still need probable cause to do a full cavity search (unless you’re traveling by car, train, or air — the Founders didn’t have them.) Cameras didn’t exist in the 18th century, and besides today they’re electronic. So there’s really no problem with this program.

  • pocketnerd

    I’m also puzzled about why people don’t care about this. It’s an issue neither party wants to touch and the voters just don’t care. What does the government have to do to get people outraged — sneak into your bedroom to watch you sleep? Or maybe conduct quarterly cavity searches to make sure you aren’t hiding terrists in your rectum?

  • eric

    I’m not particularly puzzled. The current age seems far more exhibitionist (in a nonsexual sense) in general than previous ages. People always kept diaries, but not many people published them on a daily basis for thousands of people to read. Its not just that it was unfeasible to do, I don’t think 30-40 years ago anyone would have thought it was a good idea.

    Once you become blase to the idea of thousands or tens of thousands of people reading your every comment, it seems fairly obvious to me that you would be blase about the government reading them too.

  • Modusoperandi

    Who knew that the Police State would be one-way Chat Roulette?

  • timgueguen

    There’s also all but certainly an element of “If you’re doing nothing wrong, why should you worry?” at work as well. Joe Blow who uses video chat to talk to his kids when they go to university doesn’t think someone eavesdropping on those conversations is a problem. And lots of people talk about things in public that you’d think they’d know they’d shouldn’t, like their sex lives and legal problems.

  • Nick Gotts

    But they can’t do that because the constitution clearly forbids it. Well it clearly forbids this too, for crying out loud. – Ed Brayton

    It was GCHQ doing this; it’s not clear, at least from that extract, what part if any NSA played in this particular outrage. Oddly enough, the American constitution’s provisions do not apply in the UK.

  • sugarfrosted

    @9 TL;DR The NSA got GCHQ to do it for them, then were given the data.

  • sugarfrosted

    So effectively they were doing the searches themselves just using a third party as a loophole.

  • freehand

    Sigh. I think the words we need are “outrage exhaustion”. I first saw it during the Bush administration, and it’s a necessary term in this century. It should have been in the DSM-V I am outraged that folks are ignoring global warming. I am outraged that political discourse has become course, ignorant, and irreparably confrontational. I am outraged at people proud of their determined ignorance. I am outraged at laws that turn children into sex criminals for behavior that has been common, well, probably forever. I am outraged at assaults on religious freedom. I… am exhausted.


    Many of us are busier than our parents were. I’m busier than I was 30 years ago, a young working adult. The evil powers that be depend partly on that – middle class folks are too busy paying bills, commuting, taking care of sick parents, being sick themselves, etc. to protest much of anything. Electronic communication, which should have opened up new sources of information, has become a comforting cocoon of propaganda, isolating many folks as thoroughly as would living in a small country town 100 years ago. And that propaganda, screeching hatred and paranoid conspiracies, adds more stress.


    Who has the time and energy to be outraged? I remember political scandals from the 1960s and 1980s, but I can’t remember them from last month. They come and go too quickly to properly assimilate them,