Joint Surveillance Program Stores Millions Of Yahoo Webcam Images

Secret documents provided by Edward Snowden reveal a program shared by the National Security Agency and the UK's surveillance agency. Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian explains "Optic Nerve."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with two stories of authorities tracking people online. In a moment, we'll hear how some police in this country are using software to look for potential criminal activity on Twitter. But first, something you might think would be more private: webcam chats.

Last Christmas, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden recorded a message that was televised in the UK. He warned that methods of government surveillance are worse than those in George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984."

EDWARD SNOWDEN: The types of collection in the book, microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us are nothing compared to what we have available today.

BLOCK: Well, today, the British newspaper The Guardian detailed the latest revelation from secret documents provided by Snowden and that "1984" reference is especially fitting. Britain's surveillance agency intercepted and stored millions of images taken from Yahoo! webcam chats. The story was written by The Guardian's national security editor Spencer Ackerman who joins me now. Welcome to the program.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

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: Well, you talked to Yahoo! to get a response from them, they sound pretty angry about this. They claim they didn't know anything about this.

ACKERMAN: That's right. They claim not only that they didn't know anything about this, but that if this program were, in fact, the case, it would represent what they called a whole new level of violations of their users' privacy.

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.

BLOCK: What can you tell us about any NSA connection with what was going on in Britain?

ACKERMAN: So NSA wouldn't tell us much. What we do know from the documents is that data taken from Optic Nerve, the webcam imagery and associated metadata, is put into several NSA tools. It's possible to work with those tools. And research that developed Optic Nerve used a lot of NSA research to kind of make this program work.

Whether the NSA had actual access to the images and under what circumstances is a question the NSA refused to answer. I actually physically went after NSA Chief Keith Alexander after he testified yesterday and he wouldn't answer that question.

BLOCK: Is there any indication that a program like Optic Nerve may have been or be still underway here in the United States?

ACKERMAN: That's another excellent question that we posed to NSA and they wouldn't answer.

BLOCK: Do we know, Spencer, whether Optic Nerve is still underway?

ACKERMAN: We don't. GCHQ wouldn't directly answer that question, nor would NSA so we can't say with any kind of certainty that it's still underway or that it closed down. All we can say is the documents that we had indicate that it was still active as of 2012.

BLOCK: Spencer Ackerman is national security editor with The Guardian newspaper here in Washington. Spencer, thanks so much.

ACKERMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

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