According to a new report by the New York Times, the NSA’s expansive data collection scheme also included mining the web for as many identifiable pictures of people as possible. This way, as they create data profiles of citizens, they can put faces (and whatever other parts of you that you’ve shared) to names.
As the NSA’s facial recognition technology became more useful and thus more prevalent, the agency decided to bolster their database of face images for current and future use. It seems that there exists a mixture of retrieving pictures of known targets and gathering clear pictures of faces to identify later. In addition to looking into publicly available images, such as those on social media accounts, the report indicates that they have looked through other forms of correspondence like text messages and emails for these images.
While the leaked documents obtained by the Times do not indicate one way or the other, court approval would likely have been needed for the latter cases. For their part, an NSA spokesperson told the Times:
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 or its allies.
Further, the spokesperson clarified, the NSA does not access the photographic databases of state and local law enforcement that would include driver’s license photos.
This comes not long after The Guardian reported on the collection of Yahoo webcam chats by GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA. That program, known as “Optic Nerve” and operational from 2008 to 2012, collected millions of webcam sessions between Yahoo users, as much as 11% of which contained “undesirable nudity.” The data was made available to the NSA as well and the collection tools were partially designed by them.
While the extent of NSA surveillance has not seemed to bother Americans enough to force policy changes, perhaps the creepy factor will. In this case, the legal requirements for handling images of people are rather murky.
Just over a month ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the FBI for not releasing adequate information about its own facial recognition technology, which it apparently uses in its duty for investigating crime in the United States. Now that this leak regarding the NSA has occurred, less is known about what the FBI is doing with image analysis, despite the fact they can legally collect ones of Americans.
Featured image by Steve Jurvetson (Flickr).