The NSA isn’t just interested in reading all of your emails and listening to your phone calls, now it wants to put a face to the name. At least that’s according to the latest batch of NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, brought to our attention by the New York Times. The documents show how the agency is using advanced facial recognition software to scan millions of emails, text messages, video-conferences and even social media to build a massive image database.
This is all part of the NSA’s ex-top-secret facial recognition program, which it considers a vital tool in its efforts to track and identify terrorist suspects, says the NYT. As one document dated 2010 explains, “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” in an effort “implement precision targeting.”
The NSA reportedly collects “millions” of images on a daily basis, and around 55,000 of these are rated as being of “facial recognition quality”. If that wasn’t bad enough, its believed the NSA’s tools are so sophisticated they can track individuals across the web even if they alter their appearance. For example, an individual could be recognized even if he’s wearing a hat, with or without a beard, and so on.
We should point out it’s not only the NSA that’s doing this. The NYT reminds us that many state and local law enforcement agencies have their own image databases, built from driver’s license databases, Facebook and other sources. But with the NSA it’s a little more worrying, because it has the ability to match these images with all the other data it harvests – it can put a name (and a whole lot more) to the face, so to speak.
The NYT gives this rather chilling example:
“One N.S.A. PowerPoint presentation from 2011, for example, displays several photographs of an unidentified man — sometimes bearded, other times clean-shaven — in different settings, along with more than two dozen data points about him. These include whether he was on the Transportation Security Administration no-fly list, his passport and visa status, known associates or suspected terrorist ties, and comments made about him by informants to American intelligence agencies.”
So if the fact that the NSA could already read your emails and instant messaging chats wasn’t bad enough, you’ll be comforted to realize they probably know what you look like as well. And remember, again, there’s probably a great deal more that we still don’t know.