NSA Intercepting 'Millions Of Images' Per Day In Order To Fill Facial Recognition Database
from the all-your-face-are-belong-to-us dept
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.