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British spy agency stored Yahoo Webcam images, report says

In what Yahoo called "a whole new level of violation" for users, the GCHQ collected millions of images, many of them sexually explicit.

Yahoo's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The GCHQ, the British surveillance agency akin to the NSA, captured Webcam chat images from millions of Yahoo users, according to a report by The Guardian.

The program, codenamed Optic Nerve, intercepted the images from 2008 to 2010, storing the content in bulk -- meaning it was not a targeted effort, but that it spied on people not accused of any wrongdoing. In a six month period alone, the agency reportedly captured 1.8 million images.

According to secret documents provided to the Guardian by Edward Snowden, the British agency likened the dump of images to a collection of mugshots of previously arrested individuals. The Guardian also reported that the GCHQ does not have the technology to ensure that no images of British and Americans were included in the program.

But the GCHQ got more than "mugshots." The Webcam shots contained a large amount of salacious material from people using the chat service for pornographic purposes. " 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."

The porn issue became such a problem that the agency warned its staff of the explicit images before they looked at the Optic Nerve material. The Guardian said that about 3 to 11 percent of the images contained "undesirable nudity."

"We were not aware of nor would we condone this reported activity," a Yahoo spokesperson told CNET. "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."

Tech companies have been vocal about their disapproval of government agencies' spying tactics, calling for reform. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has been individually outspoken about the surveillance as well. At a meeting President Obama held with Silicon Valley's tech giants last December, Mayer reportedly said the spy methods could contribute to the "Balkanization" of the Web, as nations adopt different standards to escape surveillance.