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Yahoo! Would you look at that? GCHQ watches webcam chats and sees a lot of nudity

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It turns out that even your private webcam chats may not be safe. Recently uncovered secret documents reveal that the GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA, used the Optic Nerve program to collect data from 1.8 million users' Yahoo webcam chats. Many of the images collected by the program contained nudity, further increasing the outrage of Yahoo users.

The GCHQ used the Optic Nerve program indiscriminately to collect 1.8 million images of people using Yahoo webcam chats between 2008 and 2010. The data was collected in bulk to help the spy agency search for criminal's mugshots amongst the images of millions of users, according to secret documents obtained by the Guardian by NSA leaker Edward Snowden. 

"Face detection has the potential to aid selection of useful images for 'mugshots' or even for face recognition by assessing the angle of the face," one document reads. "The best images are ones where the person is facing the camera with their face upright."  

In order to ascertain whether any of the mugshots were of criminals, the GCHQ had to go through millions of webcam chats from innocent users in the process. Needless to say, the agency came across some, shall we say, indecent content while perusing the video chats for criminal mug shots. 

"Unfortunately ... it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person," one document said. "Also, the fact that the Yahoo software allows more than one person to view a webcam stream without necessarily sending a reciprocal stream means that it appears sometimes to be used for broadcasting pornography." 

In a world where sexting is nearly as normal as regular texting, it's certainly not surprising that the GCHQ encountered a few lovers showing off for each other or in front of others. Users of video chatting services generally believe that their videos are private and that they are only sharing the digital image of their body with a person that they know and trust. They aren't, for example, broadcasting their nudity on YouTube for just anyone to watch. Hence the widespread outrage of Yahoo and its millions of users.

"We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity," a Yahoo spokesperson 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. We are committed to preserving our users' trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services."

The GCHQ, of course, did not respond to the allegations of privacy violation being lobbed at them by Yahoo and video chat users everywhere. The agency simply replied that it does not "comment on intelligence matters."

"Furthermore, all of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position," the GCHQ said in a statement.

The GCHQ was allegedly working with the NSA to gather this information from Yahoo webcam chat users, but the U.S. agency has also remained quiet on the matter. It denied reports that it had requested that the GCHQ intercept and collect data from Yahoo users.

"As we've said before, the National Security Agency does not ask its foreign partners to undertake any intelligence activity that the U.S. government would be legally prohibited from undertaking itself," NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said.

Recently, the biggest players in the technology industry met with President Barack Obama to discuss putting an end to NSA spying and the collection of meta data from their users. Marisa Mayer of Yahoo has been particularly vocal in opposition to NSA surveillance. The revelations gleaned from this latest report will be sure to reignite user outrage, especially given that the information that was collected in this case was so very private.

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