The National Security Agency is gathering 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 obtained by the New York Times.
Over the past four years, the spy agency has relied on more facial-recognition technology as a result of new, specialized software that can process the flood of digital communications such as emails, text messages, and even video conferences, according to the documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
"It's not just the traditional communications we're after: It's taking a full-arsenal approach that digitally exploits the clues a target leaves behind in their regular activities on the net to compile biographic and biometric information" that can help "implement precision targeting," noted a 2010 document.
NSA officials think the new technology will revolutionize how they find intelligence targets around the world even as the agency continues to intercept millions of images daily, the newspaper reported.
Current reports are not clear as to how many people around the world might have been caught up in the effort of facial harvesting since no laws, federal or otherwise, offer a specific protection to facial images.
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 emails or eavesdrop on 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 accepted.
Advocates and other critics for civil liberties are concerned that the power of the government and its improving technology could erode privacy.
"Facial recognition can be very invasive," said Alessandro Acquisti, a researcher on facial recognition technology at Carnegie Mellon University. "There are still technical limitations on it, but the computational power keeps growing, and the databases keep growing, and the algorithms keep improving."
"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.
Vines went on record to assure the public that the NSA did not have access to photographs in state databases of driver's licenses or passport photos of Americans, but would not speak on the record whether or not the agency collected photos of foreign visa applicants.
The NSA has stepped up its use of facial recognition technology under the Obama administration after two intended attacks on Americans were thwarted, which stunned the White House. The first attack was the case of Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to trigger a bomb hidden in his underwear while flying to Detroit on Christmas in 2009. In May of 2010, just a few months after the underwear bomber later, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square.
According to the Times, the NSA can now compare spy satellite photographs with harvested personal photographs taken outdoors to determine the location. As an example, the agency shared a document that shows what appear to be vacation photographs of several men standing near a small waterfront dock in 2011. It matches their surroundings to a spy satellite image of the same dock taken about the same time, located at what the document describes as a militant training facility in Pakistan.
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