The National Security Agency is reportedly collecting millions of images per day to feed its powerful facial recognition programs.
Newly released documents that were obtained by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, indicate that the spy agency has grown more aggressive in capturing these images in recent years.
According to one document from 2011, the NSA is collecting “millions of images per day” and about 55,000 of those images are “facial recognition quality images.”
The new documents raise concerns over privacy rights. It was once believed that the agency was only concerned with collecting oral and written communications but the recent revelations indicate that the NSA now considers facial images, fingerprints and other identifiers to be fair game as well.
“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,” read another document from 2010.
It notes that such information can help the agency "implement precision targeting.”
“Facial recognition can be very invasive,” says Alessandro Acquisti, a researcher on facial recognition technology at Carnegie Mellon University.
Vanee M. Vines, a spokeswoman for the NRA, defended the the program.
“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,” Vines told the New York Times.
It is not clear how the agency is acquiring the images. Vines said that the NSA did not have access to state databases of driver’s licenses or to passport photos of Americans. She declined to say if the agency was collecting images from the State Department databases of visa applicants or if the agency was mining popular sites like Facebook.
These new discoveries will likely add to the growing controversy over the NSA’s tactics which were kept under wraps until Snowden revealed the existence of numerous controversial programs last year.
Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke the Snowden story for the British newspaper the Guardian, said last week that he planned to reveal a list of names of U.S. citizens who have been spied on by the NSA programs. Greenwald told The Sunday Times of London that the list would be the biggest revelation yet. The story from that interview was reprinted by Real Clear Politics.
“One of the big questions when it comes to domestic spying is, ‘Who have been the NSA’s specific targets?’” Greenwald said.
The NSA will likely be asked more questions about facial recognition programs as well. Few know how the programs work and there have never been legal tests on their implementation.
“There are very few limits on this,” says Laura Donohue, the director of the Center on National Security and the Law at Georgetown Law School.