The U.K. government is spying on Yahoo! Inc (NASDAQ:YHOO) users, quite literally, according to a report from The Guardian. The website reports that the GCHQ, with assistance from the U.S. National Security Agency, has been intercepting webcam images and storing them. This sort of surveillance goes beyond monitoring emails and other digital data sent and stored by individuals—the issue which got the NSA in trouble when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the agency’s PRISM data mining program.

Yahoo spying webcam

GCHQ spies for years

According to the report, GCHQ’s Optic Nerve program was targeted at users of Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) services who also have webcams. Documents indicate that 1.8 million users of Yahoo were targeted by the agency in just six months, although the program reportedly went on for years, according to files which date from between 2008 and 2010. The spying appears to be affecting people who many would consider to be ordinary citizens—those who aren’t even suspected of doing anything wrong.

According to the secret documents reviewed by The Guardian, the British intelligence agency collected images from Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) webcam chats in bulk and them saved them to its databases—whether or not the people were being targeted by intelligence agencies. Among the images collected by the GCHQ were “substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications.”

Yahoo responds to spying report

Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) responded to The Guardian’s story, denying previous knowledge of the program and accusing GCHQ and the NSA of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy.”

The report said the GCHQ lacks the “technical means” to ensure that no images of citizens of the U.K. or U.S. are collected and stored. In addition, there’s nothing in U.K. law which would prevent the agency from storing and accessing the images of Americans without a warrant.

The website also reports that the documents show how the GCHQ has struggled to keep the sexually explicit images it has collected away from the eyes of its staff members. However, there is apparently little talk about the invasion of privacy which comes as a result of storing the images at all.

Big Brother called; he wants his telescreens back

The Guardian called the images of the Optic Nerve system “eerily reminiscent of the telescreens evoked in George Orwell’s 1984.” The site also reports that the program was initially used to run experiments on automating facial recognition, monitor the agency’s targets and discover new targets. The agency’s original goal was locating terror suspects or other criminals who use numerous user IDs anonymously online.

The program reportedly saved an image from Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) users’ feeds every five minutes rather than recording the entire webcam chat. The reason for that is because of legislation regarding human rights—and to keep from overloading the GCHQ’s servers with data. Although the agency reportedly tried to limit its analysts’ access to the images, they were able to look at the faces of those whose usernames were similar to those of surveillance targets. As a result, large numbers of innocent people may have been affected by the program, simply because of the username they selected.