FBI, Defense Department Worked Together To Develop Facial Recognition Tech For Drones, Surveillance Cameras

from the fighting-a-war-on-privacy dept

Another FOIA lawsuit has paid off for the ACLU. But there are no real winners here, since the documents pried from the government’s grasp detail a bunch of stuff we all wish the government wouldn’t be doing with its time and our money. Here’s Drew Harwell with the details for the Washington Post:

The FBI and the Defense Department were actively involved in research and development of facial recognition software that they hoped could be used to identify people from video footage captured by street cameras and flying drones, according to thousands of pages of internal documents that provide new details about the government’s ambitions to build out a powerful tool for advanced surveillance.


Program leaders worked with FBI scientists and some of the nation’s leading computer-vision experts to design and test software that would quickly and accurately process the “truly unconstrained face imagery” recorded by surveillance cameras in public places, including subway stations and street corners, according to the documents, which the ACLU shared with The Washington Post.

The documents detail two programs: Janus and Horus. Both were funded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, the intelligence community’s version of the Defense Department’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The goal was to create facial recognition tech versatile enough to be deployed in drones and stationary cameras, and powerful enough to perform identification “at target distances,” defined in the documents as distances of more than a half-mile.

The tools were tested by the Defense Department in facilities mocked up to resemble schools, hospitals, subway stations, and outdoor markets. Encouraged by the results, the Janus program’s facial recognition tool was added to an existing search tool called Horus, and handed over to the military’s counter-terrorism support unit. From there it spread to at least six other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security.

These revelations have prompted some rather horrified statements from people like Senator Edward Markey, who expressed his concerns about the secret development of this powerful surveillance tool, and Nathan Wessler of the ACLU, who bluntly called this a “nightmare scenario.”

But the revelations haven’t prompted much in the way of contrition from the involved entities.

The FBI said in a statement it is “committed to responsible use of facial recognition technology ensuring it appropriately respects individuals’ privacy and civil liberties.” A Defense Department official acknowledged a request for comment but did not respond to a list of questions by the time of publication. An IARPA spokeswoman said the agency is focused on developing the technology rather than how it is applied.

There you have it. The FBI said something it doesn’t really mean (or at least doesn’t seem to demonstrate very often). The Defense Department kept its mouth closed. And IARPA basically said whatever the government does with powerful surveillance tools developed with funding from this government agency is none of its business.

But the documents say what these spokespeople won’t: that the federal government wanted better, faster surveillance tools.

Research teams were tasked with developing new algorithms that could help investigators tap into a new generation of surveillance footage, allowing for instant identification and the ability to track the same person’s face across multiple videos and camera angles. The goal was to “change video from an impediment to an advantage,” one document states.

The documents also show how the FBI can help law enforcement work around local bans on facial recognition tech via its FACE (Facial Analysis, Comparison and Evaluation) unit, which runs submitted facial images through not only the FBI’s own database, but also through databases run by the Defense Department.

No matter what the government won’t say about this, it’s clear the desire is — at some level — to engage in pervasive domestic surveillance. The capabilities exist. All the federal government is lacking, at the moment, is the willpower or the right kind of domestic tragedy to push itself over that line. No one spends six years developing this kind of tech without having a compelling desire to deploy it wherever and whenever possible.

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 “FBI, Defense Department Worked Together To Develop Facial Recognition Tech For Drones, Surveillance Cameras”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Ursula Blanchat says:

neuro surveillance

Wait until you’re tortured by the intel community. They use neuro surveillance on innocent people which destroys your central nervous system.
No attorney will take your case, they disable you and even though there is no way to hold a job because of the havana syndrome noises, SSA will continually deny you. “Greatest country in the world”… this world is in deep trouble if thats true.

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...