Silly gooses, you thought the NSA only wanted to capture your personal communications.
The National Security Agency is harvesting huge numbers of images of people from communications that it intercepts through its global surveillance operations for use in sophisticated facial recognition programs, according to top-secret documents.
The spy agency’s reliance on facial recognition technology has grown significantly over the last four years as the agency has turned to new software to exploit the flood of images included in emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications, the N.S.A. documents reveal. Agency officials believe that technological advances could revolutionize the way that the N.S.A. finds intelligence targets around the world, the documents show. The agency’s ambitions for this highly sensitive ability and the scale of its effort have not previously been disclosed.
The agency intercepts “millions of images per day” — including about 55,000 “facial recognition quality images” — which translate into “tremendous untapped potential,” according to 2011 documents obtained from the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. While once focused on written and oral communications, the N.S.A. now considers facial images, fingerprints and other identifiers just as important to its mission of tracking suspected terrorists and other intelligence targets, the documents show.
As with calls and messages, the NSA can't officially run queries on photos of Americans without getting a court's approval first. A spokeswoman notes that large-scale metadata collection doesn't include these faces, and those the agency does find can help catch targets who "disguise themselves."
However, there aren't any laws explicitly protecting face detection data; it's not clear just what spies are allowed to do with the headshots they collect. While this content is more likely to be public than a call or message, and thus less sensitive by itself, civil liberty advocates are worried that the NSA may be diminishing privacy by learning so much about someone from a simple picture.