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.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 3:42am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 3:53am

    Given the number of high quality photographs of politicians published every day, and the false positive rate of facial recognition software, it's only a matter of time before we get to watch the news reports of the fallout from a SWAT raid on some senator.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 4:14am

    ...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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 4:15am

    So if it is on the net we don't need to worry about copyright even if it is for personal gain?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    icon
    Anonymous Howard (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 4:34am

    Re:

    Even if the courts found it legal based on half-truths and lies, we're not like, looking at the images, so it doesn't count!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Capt ICE Enforcer, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 4:38am

    Hell Frozen Over.

    Holy crap, I actually believe the NSA this time though they have lied/made mistakes in the past. I do believe they don't use already made US government database. After all, that would be cost effective and we know how great the government is at that.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 5:10am

    Gotta watch those nude terrorists to protect the nation.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    icon
    john Katos (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 5:29am

    faces

    If these facial databases are so good, why weren't the drivers license carrying, passport carrying, student id. carrying Boston bombers not identified?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 5:55am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    icon
    Fushta (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 6:06am

    Re:

    The program is called Facebook. It's called Facebook for a reason. /s

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    icon
    Slinky (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 6:12am

    Re: faces

    This is absolutely spot on.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    icon
    limbodog (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 6:53am

    I am so relieved that James Clapper told me we don't spy on Americans.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 6:59am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 7:08am

    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!!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 7:17am

    Re:

    Even if there is no court order I'm sure a court would have approved it had the NSA simply asked.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    icon
    Jeremy Lyman (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 7:20am

    Doubt this will result in better accuracy, we all know the bulk of what sigint is sifting through on the Internet.
    "This close, they always look like landscape. But nope, you're looking at balls."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 7:24am

    Re:

    The huge pile of data has an advantage, the agents work in a nice warm office with coffee on hand, rather than having to stand around in all sorts of weather. Also it save one hell of a lot of shoe leather.
    /sarc

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 7:28am

    Facial images

    I have no doubt they're collecting facial images, just like horny teenagers who finally got their own computer to use in private.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    icon
    weneedhelp (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 7:38am

    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...
    http://www.gamestop.com/wii-u/games/watch-dogs/108088
    Watch the trailers. Its our future.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 7:44am

    This is great news

    From now on, after an event happens, the NSA will be able to give all the newspapers accurate pictures of the attackers who blew themselves up.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 7:53am

    NSA = where low quality techs go to die

    These techs that enable this truly are the bottom of the barrel.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    icon
    Fushta (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 8:02am

    Re:

    Just think of all the false-positive hits on fat girls who use a skinny girl pic on their dating profile.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 9:34am

    Re: Re:

    Fuckin el.

    That moment when you realise that Facebook is a codeword... oh sheit!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 9:57am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    icon
    weneedhelp (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 10:28am

    Re: NSA = where low quality techs go to die

    Having worked in the belly of the beast... FOX "news," and also leaving there way short of the contracts end... its not so easy to just give up a well paying job and walk away.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    icon
    That One Guy (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 11:52am

    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'.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    icon
    That One Guy (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 11:53am

    No worries

    I mean, as everyone knows, a face is obviously 'just meta-data', and could in no way be used to identify someone, so no need to be concerned about them scooping up as many photos as they can get their hands on.

    /s

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    identicon
    Michael, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 12:48pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 1:48pm

    Re:

    Well, the vast majority of Americans aren't citizens of the national security state, which is what the true demarcation between a "citizen" and a "foreigner" really is.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    identicon
    rapnel, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 5:29pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    identicon
    Hans, Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 7:49pm

    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!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
    icon
    That One Guy (profile), Jun 2nd, 2014 @ 11:41pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
    identicon
    FM Hilton, Jun 3rd, 2014 @ 3:47am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 3rd, 2014 @ 9:16am

    We need a "Suck My Ass" selfie day.

    Everyone, everywhere, should refrain from sending any photos of faces, and send just photos of their ass, so that at least for one day, all of the pics collected is nothing but a bunch of hairy asses.....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 4th, 2014 @ 4:19am

    Are you really that dumb Mr Cushing? Why don't you ask on your own if NSA (via Google and Adobe/Macromedia/Flashplayer partnership) collects kinky pics via webcam in real time? Or, is that to diffucult to make a single phone call for a "journalist" like you?

    BTW, Vlad likes someone else doing work for him.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36.  
    identicon
    GEMont, Jun 4th, 2014 @ 11:31am

    Face-Lift

    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.....

    right?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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