NSA Intercepting 'Millions Of Images' Per Day In Order To Fill Facial Recognition Database

from the all-your-face-are-belong-to-us dept

Laura Poitras and James Risen have released another NSA document at the New York Times — this one detailing the agency’s addition of faces to its haystacks.

The National Security Agency is harvesting huge numbers of images of people from communications that it intercepts through its global surveillance operations for use in sophisticated facial recognition programs, according to top-secret documents…

The agency intercepts “millions of images per day” — including about 55,000 “facial recognition quality images” — which translate into “tremendous untapped potential,” according to 2011 documents obtained from the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden.

The “55,000” quoted here has undoubtedly grown over the past few years, and the agency’s addition of facial recognition technology aligns it with the FBI’s capabilities and similar efforts being pursued by local law enforcement agencies (with funding by the DHS). (The State Dept. also houses millions of photographs, thanks to its connection with the issuance of passports). What does put the NSA ahead of other efforts is the breadth of its existing collection programs, which give it much more connective data and communications to work with.

This also raises questions about other intelligence agencies’ capabilities, specifically the UK’s GCHQ, which was revealed to have harvested webcam images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo users between 2008-2010. This was termed a joint collection project with the NSA, so both agencies benefitted from the GCHQ’s webcam spying.

Why is the NSA constructing a biometric database? According to the documents, it’s just another counterterrorism tool, part of a “full arsenal approach” that “digitally exploits” data scattered across the web by its users. But an equally large part of the “why” is likely the lack of anything or anyone telling it “no.”

Neither federal privacy laws nor the nation’s surveillance laws provide specific protections for facial images.

Sure, the NSA might be forced to seek approval to dig through strictly American communications (photographs fall under this designation), but that doesn’t stop the agency from collecting and storing these images on a “just in case” basis.

There are also indications the NSA desires much more than photos. The article mentions the agency is looking into obtaining iris scans through existing “phone and email surveillance programs,” and has already been collecting some via unnamed “other means.”

A NSA spokesperson has issued a non-denial that basically stated the agency was a self-starter before trailing off into a faint, unintelligible mumble.

“We would not be doing our job if we didn’t seek ways to continuously improve the precision of signals intelligence activities — aiming to counteract the efforts of valid foreign intelligence targets to disguise themselves or conceal plans to harm the United States and its allies,” said Vanee M. Vines, the agency spokeswoman.

She added that the N.S.A. did not have access to photographs in state databases of driver’s licenses or to passport photos of Americans, while declining to say whether the agency had access to the State Department database of photos of foreign visa applicants. She also declined to say whether the N.S.A. collected facial imagery of Americans from Facebook and other social media through means other than communications intercepts.

Most likely the agency does have access to the State Department database. Declining to comment generally indicates a confirmation of the accusations. Vines’ assertion about the “safety” of Americans’ drivers license/passport data is relatively meaningless as the agency is clearly interested in collecting everything it can possibly get ahold of. One look at the leaked fourth slide shows a vast array of potential data targets, any one of which is bound to sweep up US citizens, even if only incidentally. Just because the agency isn’t tapping into motor vehicle databases doesn’t mean it won’t be able to collect information from other intercepts.

One of the largest concerns about this collection effort is the relative inaccuracy of facial recognition technology. Current systems have a fairly large margin of error, something that is greatly compounded by vast, untargeted collections. Without a doubt, the technology will improve, but rather than waiting for something better, the NSA (along with several other government agencies) has already deployed its dragnet. False hits will happen. Theoretically, the NSA’s vast collections should help separate bogus matches from legitimate hits, but our nation’s safekeepers haven’t really shown a tendency to connect dots and/or verify before making moves.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “NSA Intercepting 'Millions Of Images' Per Day In Order To Fill Facial Recognition Database”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

I’m sure they’re not collecting images under this program.
Even if they were collecting images under another program, I’m sure they’re just meta-images.
Even if the meta-images are extremely revealing, I’m sure they have a complex factor for determining the image’s foreignness.
Even if the statistical calculation of foreignness isn’t better than a coin flip, I’m sure they’re not targeting Americans.
And even if they were collecting images of Americans, I’m sure they’re just completely legal as found by a court somewhere.

So in summary, you have nothing to worry about because terrorists.

Anonymous Coward says:

…aiming to counteract the efforts of valid foreign intelligence targets to disguise themselves or conceal plans to harm the United States and its allies,? said Vanee M. Vines, the agency spokeswoman.

What I hear is a distinct violation of the 4th amendment. I also hear that domestic citizens are now considered foreign intelligence targets and that’s why they are spying Americans.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: faces

remember, they already talked to them and determined that these guys were not a threat… then they blew shit up.

No amount of information gathering will help with stupid people and organizations unable to identify threats when they are slapping them in their face.

Kinda like the American people, there is a major threat slapping them in the face called the American Government… yep… didn’t feel a thing.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

We have systems that misread license plates, but somehow we can do better with faces?
Perhaps we could do a better job if we stopped pushing harder to do more, and made them focus on tried and true methods of investigation. Where we focus on specific targets, rather than just throw everything into a giant worthless pile to dig through later.
Perhaps respecting citizens of the US and other nations, might work better than secret systems that when discovered lead to people disliking us more.

Anonymous Coward says:

and so the removal of privacy and freedom continues. the USA government and so-called security services are not going to be content until they are able to track a person from birth until death, knowing everything about the person, who is contacted, what’s said, journeys taken, mail posted, shops visited and items bought/sold! how anyone could become so paranoid them self is amazing, to actually convince a whole government to be just as paranoid is beyond belief! God help us because we are heading towards destroying ourselves!!

weneedhelp (profile) says:

I told you so

[Puts on tinfoil top hat]
Just wait until all those faces are being looked at and scanned by all the cameras everywhere. Privacy? Gone. Then with the tag and facial recognition… next it will be mandatory for privately owned video be tied into the system…
Watch the trailers. Its our future.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Ramping up for universal recognition

They’re ramping up for a universal observation program I’ve privately being expecting for years.

According to my back-of-the-envelope estimates, it will be feasible sometime in 2015 for NSA to record feeds from all governmental security cameras, and they need to be able to do facial recognition on every face captured. (Maybe they have the capability to record all the cameras now and that’s why the sudden ramp up in source data acquisition.)

What I expect they will capture, or try to capture, related to each person who passes through camera view: Subject’s identity; time of detection; direction of motion; clothing; items carried by the subject; activities (talking on a cell phone); any companion subjects; any other subjects who pass, precede, or follow the subject; anything touched, picked up or discarded by the subject; and (possibly, this is still hard) where the subject looks.

If the camera is equipped with microphones, they will include audio recordings with transcripts, indexed by speaking subject.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Ramping up for universal recognition

And the really screwed up part?

Couple of years back, something like that would sound like ranting of a completely crazy person. The paranoid delusions of someone who’s completely lost it, and thinks the ‘government is out to get them’.

Now? Now I read something like that and I just think, ‘Yeah, I can see them at least trying to put something like that in place’.

Michael (profile) says:

One of the largest concerns about this collection effort is the relative inaccuracy of facial recognition technology. Current systems have a fairly large margin of error, something that is greatly compounded by vast, untargeted collections.

That is a little unfair, it’s not like they won’t confirm someone’s identity before, you know, pulling them over with guns drawn, dragging them out of their car, handcuffing them, and making them wait an hour before checking their license plate number.

That kind of thing could never happen.

rapnel (profile) says:

Catagorically Unfit

Signals intelligence. When signals carry the secrets of the might of a nation then sigint is godly. When sigint carries the secrets of a people then sigint is the devil.

This is not America, this is a group of thugs with guns and law taking over.

The unlawful & unconstitutional archives must be destroyed and the collections must stop.

That’s an order.

Hans says:

Wiretapping, not.

“Neither federal privacy laws nor the nation?s surveillance laws provide specific protections for facial images.”

So it’s not wiretapping as long as there are no privacy laws protecting it? I thought all communications were protected, not things with “specific protections”….

I love this country!

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Wiretapping, not.

The government generally acts under the assumption that they can do anything they think they can get away with unless specifically ordered not to, at which point they’ll still do whatever they want, they’ll just try and hide it a little better.

And if they get caught again? Then they have a hearty chuckle, knowing that no judge has the guts or integrity to actually prosecute them for their actions, before going right back to what they were doing.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

Another unsettling thought.

One should remember how many laptops/notebooks come with cameras installed.

Although the computer manufacturers claim that this kind of technology can’t be used without the user’s knowledge we’ve seen that high schools have spied on kids before with built-in cameras that were operating without anyone’s knowledge. Case in point was this:

“At issue are school-issued Mac laptops provided to 2,300 students at Harriton High School. Unbeknownst to those students and their parents, the laptops were equipped with tracking software that could remotely activate the computer’s webcam to take photos of the user, as well as capture screen shots. It was intended as a means to locate lost or stolen laptops, but was apparently activated in more questionable circumstances as well.”

Who’s to say that the NSA can’t (and hasn’t already) found a way to use this without anyone’s knowledge?

Remember this next time you activate your webcam.

GEMont (profile) says:


The Secret Ballot, so sacred to Americans, just got a face-lift.

A tiny camera placed in a concealed position that can view the voter’s choice on the ballot, connected to a database of triple redundant (driver’s licence, passport, and social media) citizen photographs for that vote station area, gives a remarkably clear report of exactly who voted and who they voted for.

This method literally eliminates the need to bribe or coerce anyone associated with voting security and ballot transportation safety and makes the complete eradication of the secret ballot possible without any citizen having any chance to discover the loss of secrecy.

It is also, once established, nearly cost free.

Of course, everyone knows that the CIA/FBI/NSA/HLS machine would never do such an underhanded thing as this…..


Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...