Monday, June 23, 2014

The NSA, Facial Recognition Technology and You

The month of June saw many concerns being raised over the National Security Agency, data collection, and privacy. From a report published by The New York Times on May 31, the NSA’s use of facial recognition technology has increased in recent years. This report by was based off of 2011 documents from Edward Snowden, the ex-agency contractor who made similar security revelations around this time last year.

Now, according to these documents, the NSA has broadened their focus on other identifiers during their data collections. More than just tracking written communications and oral communications like email and phone conversations, the NSA has been gathering fingerprints and facial images as well. Recognizing the “tremendous untapped potential” of private images included in online communications, the NSA appears to be turning towards facial recognition technology to “revolutionize the way that the N.S.A. finds intelligence targets around the world” as part of their efforts to monitor individuals such as suspected terrorists.

The NSA intercepts a staggering amount of images. According to the report, millions of images are collected from private communications such as email, text messages, social media, and video conferences each day. Of these, about 55,000 are “facial recognition quality images”. In addition, this secret image-gathering program by the NSA appears to have become more advanced and sophisticated from when it first began in 2010, with the ability to identify faces despite facial hair and hairstyle changes.

Detailed in the report, a NSA presentation of their image surveillance program showed an unidentified man in different settings and varied appearances (such as bearded and clean shaven), as well as more than two dozen data points about his known associates, passport or visa status, and other intelligence information. The documents were unclear about how many images or individuals have been involved in the NSA’s broad data collection efforts in this manner.

As a result, many Americans have expressed concerns about privacy, especially as facial recognition programs gain increased invasiveness as their algorithms continue to improve. When asked on June 3 at a Bloomberg government cybersecurity conference about whether this program collects images of U.S. citizens, NSA director Admiral Michael S. Rogers replied, “If we have to do anything involving a U.S. person, we have specific legal constraints we must comply with. We do not do this in some unilateral basis against U.S. citizens.”

Since images are categorized as communications, the NSA must get court approval in order to collect images on Americans, just like they would in order to wire-tap phone conversations or read emails. From this, it would appear that only images of individuals overseas or involved in on-going NSA investigations are being collected. In addition, Vanee M. Vines, the NSA spokeswoman, said that the agency “did not have access to photographs in state databases of driver’s licenses or to passport photos”. However, she declined to comment whether the NSA had access to the photos of foreign visa applicants found in the State Department database or if the NSA had collected facial images of Americans from social media sites like Facebook.

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