The National Security Agency is collecting millions of photographs daily to build a massive facial recognition database for identifying and tracking targets, according to documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden.
One of the documents cited in a New York Times report from 2010 said, “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” to “implement precision targeting.”
Of the millions of images swept up daily, 55,000 are of “facial recognition quality,” and are likely collected in bulk from online social media websites like Facebook and private communications routinely intercepted by the signals intelligence agency’s other surveillance programs, though any domestic communication would require a court order.
National Security Agency spokeswoman Vanee M. Vines said the image program is separate from the agency’s bulk metadata collection initiatives, and that the agency cannot access government databases for driver’s license or passport photos.
“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 said.
Further presentation documents explaining the program demonstrated how facial recognition technology available to the agency matched two photos of the same man, one with a beard and the other without. The backgrounds of other photos were examined and matched up against satellite imagery to determine the location of a target in the photograph.
While the technology reportedly still needs significant advancement before being usefully deployed in the field, the NSA isn’t the only agency working on such an endeavor — the FBI and State Department are working on their own image databases for the same purpose, and numerous technology firms are continually making advances in facial recognition technology for marketing, targeted advertising and other purposes.