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Network Security

Scandalous: U.K. Spies Target Yahoo Webcams

Scandalous: U.K. Spies Target Yahoo Webcams
February 27, 2014 1:45PM

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Anything sent over the Internet unencrypted is fair game for police, intelligence services like the NSA and GCHQ or anyone to intercept. It's disappointing that Yahoo doesn’t adequately protect its webcam services, but not surprising. Yahoo has been behind the curve when it comes to securing its services, said security analyst Chester Wisniewski.

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It’s not just the National Security Agency you have to worry about spying on you anymore. Apparently, the Brits are also involved in the snooping action.

According to a report in The Guardian, GCHQ, Britain’s surveillance agency, is working with the NSA to intercept and store webcam images of millions of Internet users. The paper cites “secret documents” that reveal the subjects of the snooping were not even suspected of any crimes.

And this didn’t just start happening, either. A surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, The Guardian said, pointing to GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010. More than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts, including those that contained sexually explicit communications, were reported collected during a six-month period in 2008.

The article was based on documents provided by Edward Snowden, and said, “Webcam information was fed into NSA's XKeyscore search tool, and NSA research was used to build the tool which identified Yahoo's webcam traffic . . . It is not fully clear from the documents how much access the NSA has to the Yahoo webcam trove itself.”

Internet Traffic Fair Game

Yahoo could not immediately be reached for comment but according to a published statement: "We were not aware of, nor would we condone, this reported activity. 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 caught up with Chester Wisniewski, senior security advisory at Sophos, to get his take on the international news. He told us anything sent over the Internet unencrypted is fair game for police, intelligence services or anyone else to intercept.

“While it is disappointing that Yahoo doesn’t provide adequate protection for their webcam services, it isn’t surprising,” Wisniewski says. “Yahoo has historically been behind the curve when it comes to securing its services and this is just another example of how far they have to go.”

Truly Shocking

Reuters is reporting that the NSA and GCHQ have shared intelligence under an arrangement known as the UKUSA agreement. According to the wire service, they also collaborate with eavesdropping agencies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand in what is known as the "Five Eyes" alliance.

“This is a truly shocking revelation that underscores the importance of the debate on privacy now taking place and the reforms being considered,” said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.

“In a world in which there is no technological barrier to pervasive surveillance, the scope of the government’s surveillance activities must be decided by the public, not secretive spy agencies interpreting secret legal authorities. This report also raises troubling questions about the NSA’s complicity in what is a massive and unprecedented violation of privacy. We need to know more about what the NSA knew, and what role it played,” he said.

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