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NSA Facial Recognition Program

Wait a minute before you post those photos of yourself online. The NY Times reported that the National Security Agency happens to collect millions of photos daily from electronic communications and analyzes them as part of an extensive facial recognition program.

According to the documents obtained by the Times, out of the millions of images collected each day, the NSA harvests about 55,000 that it considers to be “facial recognition quality.”

The report goes on to say that “it is not clear how many people around the world, and how many Americans, might have been caught up in the effort,” stating that the current US privacy and surveillance laws don’t specifically protect against the use of facial recognition technology to identify individuals.

More on the Program

The NSA’s facial recognition program is separate from the agency’s bulk metadata collection program, which collects information including the phone numbers you have dialed. However, the NSA still needs to obtain court approval in order to collect images from American citizens, since they fall under the same legal umbrella as the content of an email, or the audio from a phone call (neither of these can be collected without a warrant).

An NSA spokesperson has made it clear that the agency can’t access driver’s license or passport photo databases, though the agency refused to say whether or not it collects photos from social media “through means other than communications intercepts.”

The agency staunchly defends its use of such technology. According to Admiral Michael S. Rogers – the NSA’s new director – at a Bloomberg Government cybersecurity conference: “We do not do this in some unilateral basis against US citizens. We have very specific restrictions when it comes to US persons.”

Of course, Rogers is heading up an agency which has been dealing with both domestic and international backlash over spying exposed in documents leaked by former agency contractor Edward Snowden. Congress is considering measures to rein in some NSA data collection. In an interview, Rogers mentioned that he wanted to change public focus on what the agency does to how the agency exists to protect the country and the constraints it works under.

The agency’s reliance on facial recognition technology has grown substantially over the past four years, as the agency has explored the uses of new software to exploit the numerous images included in emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications. Agency officials believe that such technological advancements could revolutionize the way the NSA identifies intelligence targets around the world.

Previously, the agency focused on written and oral communications, but now it considers facial images, fingerprints and other identifiers just as important to its mission of tracking suspected terrorists and other intelligence targets.

According to a 2010 NSA document,  “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.”

Erosion of Privacy

While these specific revelations are rather new, experts have commented on the impact of facial recognition technology on privacy for a few years.

Back in 2011, Facebook introduced a feature that could automatically tag people in photos, creating an uproar in the privacy community. Senator Al Franken then went on the record in 2012 to demand controls on how companies and government agencies can use facial recognition technology to identify individuals. Later, in 2013, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit over the FBI’s use of facial recognition technology.

It’s a changing landscape of how data is collected and used. According to NSA director Rogers, “The idea that you can be totally anonymous in the digital age is increasingly difficult to execute. We have framed this debate much too narrow from my perspective. This is much bigger than the National Security Agency.”

Summary

The National Security Agency’s (NSA) reliance on facial recognition technology has grown substantially over the past four years, as the agency has explored the uses of new software to exploit the numerous images included in emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications. It was recently revealed that the NSA collects millions of online images and uses facial recognition software to track suspected terrorists.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology (CIPP/IT) a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Purposes and uses of PII (I.C.c.)
  • Privacy expectations (II.A.)
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