British agents spied on millions of people through their webcams using a program likened to the surveillance system in George Orwell’s 1984, according to leaked secret documents.
The surveillance agency GCHQ used a hacking program codenamed Optic Nerve to view British citizens in their homes as they used the Yahoo! webcam chat system, the classified files revealed by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and published by The Guardian show.
Up to 11 per cent of the images contained what agents called “undesirable nudity”, according to the documents. It is unclear exactly how much information was obtained using Optic Nerve. However, in six months in 2008, images were obtained from more than 1.8 million Yahoo! user accounts around the world.
Civil liberty campaigners expressed horror at the scale of the surveillance of people who were not suspected of a crime. Yahoo!, which said it had not been aware of the surveillance, said the revelations represented “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”.
The documents show the legal status of the system was discussed, particularly in relation to using automated facial matching to identify the people in the pictures. “It was agreed that the legalities of such a capability would be considered once it had been developed, but that the general principle applied would be that if the accuracy of the algorithm was such that it was useful to the analyst,” one document from 2008 reads.
Nick Pickles, the director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said Orwell’s 1984 was “supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual”. “Secretly intercepting and taking photographs from millions of people’s webcam chats is as creepy as it gets,” he said.
Conservative MP David Davis, who has campaigned on civil liberties issues, said: “It is perfectly proper for our intelligence agencies to use any and all means to target people for whom there are reasonable grounds for suspicion of terrorism. It is entirely improper to extend such intrusive surveillance on a blanket scale to ordinary citizens.”
A GCHQ spokeswoman said: “We’re not commenting on anything.”