GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of
In one six-month period in 2008, the agency collected webcam imagery - including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications - from more than 1.8m
The Conservative MP and former minister
GCHQ does not have the technical means to make sure no images of British or US citizens are collected and stored by the system, and there are no restrictions under
The documents, provided by the NSA whistleblower
Optic Nerve began as a prototype in 2008 and was still active in 2012, according to an internal GCHQ wiki page accessed that year. The system, eerily reminiscent of the telescreens evoked in George Orwell's 1984, was used for experiments in automated facial recognition, to monitor GCHQ's existing targets, and to discover new targets of interest. Such searches could be used to try to find terror suspects or criminals making use of multiple, anonymous user IDs.
The programme saved one image every five minutes from the users' feeds, partly to comply with human rights legislation, and also to avoid overloading GCHQ's servers. The documents describe these users as "unselected" - intelligence agency parlance for bulk rather than targeted collection.
One document even likened the program's "bulk access to
The agency did make efforts to limit analysts' ability to see webcam images, restricting bulk searches to metadata only. However, analysts were shown the faces of people with similar usernames to surveillance targets, potentially dragging in large numbers of innocent people. One document tells agency staff they were allowed to display "webcam images associated with similar
Optic Nerve was based on collecting information from GCHQ's huge network of internet cable taps, which was then processed and fed into systems provided by the NSA. Webcam information was fed into NSA's XKeyscore search tool, and NSA research was used to build the tool which identified
Bulk surveillance on
Programs like Optic Nerve, which collect information in bulk from largely anonymous user IDs, are unable to filter out information from
Sexually explicit webcam material proved to be a particular problem for GCHQ, as one document delicately put it: "Unfortunately . . . it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person. Also, the fact that the
The document estimated that between 3% and 11% of the
GCHQ did not make any specific attempts to prevent the collection or storage of explicit images, the documents suggest, but did eventually compromise by excluding images in which software had not detected any faces from search results - an attempt to prevent many of the lewd shots being seen by analysts.
The system was not perfect at stopping those images reaching the eyes of GCHQ staff. An internal guide warned prospective Optic Nerve users that "there is no perfect ability to censor material which may be offensive. Users who may feel uncomfortable about such material are advised not to open them." It further notes: "Under GCHQ's offensive material policy, the dissemination of offensive material is a disciplinary offence."
Once collected, the metadata associated with the videos can be as valuable to the intelligence agencies as the images themselves.
GCHQ mass collection is governed by the
Documents previously revealed in the Guardian showed the NSA were exploring the video capabilities of game consoles for surveillance purposes.
GCHQ said: "It is a longstanding policy that we do 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 NSA declined to respond to specific queries about Optic Nerve. However, NSA spokeswoman
"A key part of the protections that apply to both US persons and citizens of other countries is the mandate that information be in support of a valid foreign intelligence requirement, and comply with US attorney general-approved procedures to protect privacy rights. Those procedures govern the acquisition, use, and retention of information about US persons."
Additional reporting by
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Advice for sensitive GCHQ interceptors on how to treat 'undesirable' images
Optic Nerve began in 2008. In six months it collected images from 1.8m Yahoo accounts Photograph:
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