NSA collecting millions of faces from web images

The U.S. intelligence agency is harvesting huge numbers of images of people for use in sophisticated facial recognition programs, media reports

NSA collecting millions of faces from web images

World Bulletin/News Desk

The National Security Agency is harvesting huge numbers of images of people from communications it intercepts through its global surveillance operations for use in sophisticated facial recognition programs, according to top-secret documents.

According to New York Times, the spy agency’s reliance on facial recognition technology has grown significantly over the last four years as the agency has turned to new software to exploit the flood of images included in emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications, the NSA documents reveal.

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, report says. While once focused on written and oral communications, the NSA now considers facial images, fingerprints and other identifiers just as important to its mission of tracking suspected terrorists and other intelligence targets, the documents show.

One NSA PowerPoint presentation from 2011, for example, displays several photographs of an unidentified man — sometimes bearded, other times clean-shaven — in different settings, along with more than two dozen data points about him. These include whether he was on the Transportation Security Administration no-fly list, his passport and visa status, known associates or suspected terrorist ties, and comments made about him by informants to U.S. intelligence agencies.

It is not clear how many people around the world, and how many Americans, might have been caught up in the effort. Neither federal privacy laws nor the nation’s surveillance laws provide specific protections for facial images. Given the NSA’s foreign intelligence mission, much of the imagery would involve people overseas whose data was scooped up through cable taps, Internet hubs and satellite transmissions.

NYT says, because the agency considers images a form of communications content, the NSA would be required to get court approval for imagery of Americans collected through its surveillance programs, just as it must to read their emails or eavesdrop on their phone conversations, according to an NSA spokeswoman. Cross-border communications in which an American might be emailing or texting an image to someone targeted by the agency overseas could be excepted.

Civil-liberties advocates and other critics are concerned that the power of the improving technology, used by government and industry, could erode privacy.

State and local law enforcement agencies are relying on a wide range of databases of facial imagery, including driver’s licenses and Facebook, to identify suspects. The FBI is developing what it calls its “next generation identification” project to combine its automated fingerprint identification system with facial imagery and other biometric data.

The NSA has accelerated its use of facial recognition technology under the Obama administration, the documents show, the report adds. The documents suggest that the agency has considered getting access to iris scans through its phone and email surveillance programs. The documents also indicate that the NSA collects iris scans of foreigners through other means.

In addition, the agency was working with the CIA and the State Department on a program called Pisces, collecting biometric data on border crossings from a wide range of countries.

Last Mod: 01 Haziran 2014, 12:13
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