British Agency’s Program, “Optic Nerve,” Raises Questions about Cybercrime, Privacy, and Life in the Modern Age

March 12, 2014 by David S. Seltzer

Some crazy Florida cybercrime stories sound contrived – almost made up.

But this one is real.

According to reports from The Guardian, a British spy agency collected millions of still images from Yahoo! webcam chats, during an operation known as “Optic Nerve.” A leaked document from the notorious Edward Snowden (the famous NSA contractor who absconded to Russia with a trove of U.S. national security documents) revealed Optic Nerve, which the British developed to test facial recognition software technology. Starting in 2008, the "GCHC" Agency spied on “unselected” Yahoo! webcam users and snapped millions of pictures at intervals of five minutes. These people had done nothing wrong, and they were suspected of nothing – i.e. there were random people using Yahoo! webcam, including American citizens.

The Optic Nerve program created an oddball challenge for GHHQ technicians. Per a Snowden-leaked document: “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 Yahoo! software allows more than one person to view webcam streams without necessarily sending a typical stream means that it appears sometimes to be used for broadcasting pornography.”

Astonishingly, up to 11% of all the images vacuumed up by the GHHQ were, in some fashion, pornographic.

Yahoo! representatives expressed intense outrage over the revelation. Yahoo! has been incredibly outspoken about its frustrations with the NSA's surveillance activities. A company spokesperson told the Guardian “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 … we are committed to preserving our users’ trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services.”

Here’s what’s really interesting. Imagine if a random person or a group unaffiliated individuals began using Yahoo’s webcam service to download millions of pictures from unsuspecting people. Would that activity be legal? Would it be sanctioned, morally speaking?

Obviously, governments and spy agencies are (and should be) allowed to play by slightly different rules. However, the case highlights just how interconnected the world is in the cyberage and how privacy can easily be violated.

Fortunately, it’s not up to you to try to fix our fluid, dysfunctional online world. However, if you do face a charge like hacking, fraud, or any other Florida computer crime, you want build an aggressive and articulate defense. Trust the team here at Seltzer Law, PA, to help you with that big task. Call us now at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (888-843-3333) for a free consultation now.