NSA facial recognition program scours web for images to identify suspects

Filed Under: Cryptography, Data loss, Facebook, Featured, Privacy

NSA collects millions of images of faces from the webThe US National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting millions of images from the web and storing them in a database that can be mined by facial recognition software to identify suspects for targeted surveillance.

A report in The New York Times exposing the secret program quoted documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former contractor now exiled in Russia and facing charges back home in the United States.

According to the Times, the NSA's image-gathering program is now more sophisticated and far-reaching since the program began in 2010, and the NSA's software can identify faces even when the targets were wearing different hair styles and facial hair.

By comparing images with satellite photos, the program can even pinpoint locations. According to the Times:

One document 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.

The Times report also describes the NSA's plans to "implement precision targeting," based on the program's collection of advanced biographical and biometric data.

NSA logo 270An NSA spokesperson acknowledged the program, but would not comment on whether the program gathers data from Americans using social media sites including Facebook.

The program can sort images from intercepted communications such as emails, video conferences, and text messages, and compare them against vast troves of images from sources including passports, visas and national identity databases of other governments, the Times reports.

Despite the the facial recognition software's advanced capabilities, it can and does return false positives.

According to the Times, an NSA search of the database in 2011 for images of Osama bin Laden returned some photos of bin Laden, but also images of four other bearded men with "only slight resemblances" to bin Laden.

Still, the technology can identify suspects under challenging conditions:

One 2011 PowerPoint showed how the software matched a bald young man, shown posing with another man in front of a water park, with another photo where he has a full head of hair, wears different clothes and is at a different location.

Civil liberties groups said the use of facial recognition data, while not protected under US privacy law, is an invasion of Fourth Amendment rights.

Since June 2013, when Snowden first identified himself as the source of the secret NSA documents, a series of revelations has uncovered various NSA programs that include using backdoors installed on internet routers and hacking computers with malware to spy on targets abroad.

Snowden's decision to seek protection from prosecution by fleeing to Russia has led to split opinion among Americans as to whether he was acting in good faith or harming US national security.

President Obama has generally defended NSA surveillance, including the NSA's exploitation of unknown software vulnerabilities such as the Heartbleed bug in OpenSSL.


Image of red, white and blue NSA courtesy of Shutterstock.

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2 Responses to NSA facial recognition program scours web for images to identify suspects

  1. Andrew · 496 days ago

    no surprise about this.

  2. Sean · 495 days ago

    When Nick Fury (as played by Samuel L. Jackson) ordered "eyes everywhere" in the film The Avengers and they quickly identified Loki (as played by Tom Hiddleston) and placed him in Stuttgart, Germany (as played by Cleveland, Ohio), it didn't seem technologically implausible. "Hooray for the good guys" was the implication.

    The flip side of that is portrayed in the film Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, wherein the same SHIELD organization is corrupted from within and shows that it can use advanced technology for far more sinister purposes.

    Therein lies the concern. Even with Mr. Snowden’s revelations, we still don’t know exactly what the NSA is doing. And the state’s ability to oversee itself is blatantly non-existent. Case in point: Mr. Obama recently appointed Tom Wheeler, one of his golfing buddies, as head of the FCC. Wheeler was a lobbyist for the telecommunication companies. In other words, the fox is guarding the henhouse. Net neutrality is headed for extinction.

    So, notwithstanding the likelihood that the folks at NSA see themselves as The Good Guys™, they’re not looking out for our best interests. The potential for harm to the general populace is off the state’s radar. The preservation of freedom is no longer their motivation. What they want to preserve is the state institutions and those who influence them with money.

    The people are the losers...and there’s no Captain America to save the day.

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About the author

John Zorabedian is a blogger, copywriter and editor at Sophos. He has a background in journalism, writing about technology, business, politics and culture. He lives and works in the Boston area.