The National Security Agency (NSA) is harvesting millions of photos posted online everyday as part of its global surveillance program. Digital images captured from social media, emails, text messages, and other communication portals are analyzed with a view to facial recognition and use the information in the fight against terrorism.
According to the report in the New York Times, the NSA’s dependence on facial recognition software has grown rapidly over the last four years. The agency is mining emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications to gain insight on suspected terrorists and intelligence targets. They are building a comprehensive facial recognition database by capturing around 55,000 images per day out of the millions of images being intercepted.
Processing facial images, fingerprints, oral and written communication data, and other identifiers reportedly helps investigators identify how the “targets” live and where they are at.
Facial Recognition and Precision Targeting
According to these recent reports, the NSA uses biographic and biometric information for precision targeting. For example, One N.S.A. PowerPoint presentation from 2011 shows photographs of a man, sometimes bearded and at other times clean-shaven, in various settings along with several data points about him. The data includes his passport and visa status, his status on the transportation security administration no-fly list, his association with terrorist groups, and the comments made about him by informants to American intelligence agencies.
Limitations and Legal Implications of Photo Capture
Experts point out that facial recognition technology is not always reliable and has problems matching low-resolution images. Moreover, photos of faces taken from certain angles can be impossible to match against mug shots or other types of facial photos. In some cases, NSA’s facial recognition program has turned up several results, many of which were found to be false hits.
Coming to the legal implications, American law has no specific protection for facial images. However, NSA still has to get court approval for communications collected of American citizens, which includes photographs, emails and telephone conversations. The agency says it does not have access to photos taken for US passports or US driving licenses.