Privacy SOS

Lookout sports fans! You may be on face recognition camera!

The next time you're at a sports arena or an airport, take a look around to see if there are signs that indicate you are being monitored.

UPDATE: The New York Times' Charlie Savage wrote an August 2013 story about the BOSS system using documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The documents show that DHS does not think the BOSS system is advanced enough to sell to police departments, citing a high error rate, slow processing time, and the need for powerful computing that exceeds the capabilities of most police departments.

In 2010 Representative Brett Guthrie (R-KY) and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) secured a six million dollar earmark to pay for military related research and development, awarded to a company with offices in Kentucky. The beneficiary of the earmark was Electronic Warfare Associates Inc., headquartered in CIA country in McClean, VA, with offices and facilities throughout the metro DC region as well as in various other locations nationwide. 

EWA Inc. provides a range of services to government and even other war contractors, including the NSA, the National Reconnoissance Office and Northrop Grumman. A privately held “small business” with fewer than 500 employees, the company operates a government services division that lists capabilities as diverse as radar design and development, special operations, military training and information security. EWA Inc. also provides a range of products to government and contractors, including communications jamming and interception and surveillance tools, among many others

Among EWA Inc.’s other properties is a firm called Fowler Trading Company, which it says pursues “international trading activities.” This for profit so-called “trading company” has no public facing website. In fact, the only substantive publicly available information on the “trading” firm comes from military and government websites. One excel spreadsheet, posted online by the NSA, lists Fowler Trading Company and its president, Douglas Street, as contractor attendees of a 2008 NSA Industry Day. lists the head of the firm as Robert Street, and provides what appears to be a personal email address for him — which, interestingly enough, is not a type address (it’s The Fed Business Opportunities website makes various mentions of Fowler Trading Company in the context of military equipment procurement, but there is no mention of any “international trading activities.”

Electronic Warfare Associates' confusing "trading" interests aside, the company appears to be your average beltway military contractor. And so naturally, like so many of its competitors and partners, it is honing in on the domestic market.

Bringing the war home: the “homeland security” market

Electronic Warfare Associates Inc. also owns a subsidiary dedicated to biometrics development, called Systems Technology Associates Inc.. It may be that the $6 million government earmark Senator McConnell scored for EWA went to this subsidiary; publicly available information about the earmark says it funded research and development into something called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS). 

BOSS popped up on my radar today in a newly published Department of Homeland Security privacy impact assessment (PIA). The PIA describes an add-on to a previously disclosed suicide bomber identification program called “Standoff Technology Integration and Demonstration Program” or STIDP. According to the newly disclosed DHS document, the government and its contractors have been testing out the multi-layered monitoring program at the Toyota Center, a sports and media arena in Washington state. 

DHS describes the STIDP system as a set of technologies that, when integrated, may someday enable the identification of people who intend to blow themselves up in large crowds — like at football stadiums, for example. The agency says it is working with major sports leagues to roll out an expansion of the pilot program to other venues nationwide, but no publicly available information I could find says which ones.

The screenshots below describe the technologies deployed in the STIDP program:

The privacy impact assessment for the STIDP program tells us a bit about how the system, deploying sensors, cameras and “electronic nose” sniffers would work:

First-line sensors triage the arriving crowd, identifying people of interest who should be interrogated with one or more screening technologies. People are tracked and their coordinates are passed to a system that prioritizes screening based on rules. The system then transmits coordinates to the appropriate downstream sensor and a scan is conducted. The screening result is displayed to the operator and associated data are captured for operator examination, if necessary. The process continues until all the people in the screening zone are screened.

The BOSS system is a biometrics add-on to STIDP, bringing face recognition into the project. It would match "3D signatures from  captured facial images with enrolled images stored in the system database."

The database gets its images from volunteers, for now. DHS says it doesn't rule out using face prints from other systems, what it calls "existing legacy databases," in the future. Those could include anything — from arrest mugshots to drivers' ID photos.

From the newly released PIA on the BOSS project:

The BOSS technology consists of two cameras capable of taking stereoscopic images of a face and the back end Remote Matching System (RMS). Stereoscopic images are two images of the same object, taken at slightly different angles that create an illusion of 3- dimensional depth from the 2-dimensional images. The cameras transfer the pair of images to the RMS via fiber optic or wireless technology. The RMS then processes and stores the two images into a 3D signature, which is the mathematical representation of the stereo-pair images that the system uses for matching. Using the BOSS facial recognition algorithms, the signature is matched against a locally stored database created from volunteers, using a combination of mathematical and statistical analysis.

BOSS is capable of capturing images of an individual at 50-100 meters in distance. The system can capture images of subjects participating from a specific distance, or be set up in a way that tracks and passively captures frontal face images of an individual as he/she moves in front of the camera.

This project includes the creation of a gallery of enrolled signatures that are stored in the BOSS database. Currently, there is no large-scale repository of facial images that DHS is collecting specifically for facial recognition. The majority of facial images available to federal, state, and local law enforcement, and first responders are collected at border crossings by Customs and Border Protection or mug shots collected upon arrest. These single, frontal images collected during operations are not well-suited for stereoscopic facial recognition matching by BOSS. However, DHS recognizes the potential capability to match images of faces to these existing legacy databases and thus directed S&T to perform facial recognition on a set of better, operationally-relevant data.

These signatures include enrollment images of volunteers, along with images collected from publically available sources, including mug shots published on a Sheriff’s Office website.

Who knows if the system works or not, or whether it ever will. It's hard to get a sense of the efficacy of the program because its privacy impact assessment doesn’t describe the actual technologies deployed, but simply states that cameras and databases are involved.

Whether it works or not, it might be capturing your image sooner than later. While the testing of the screening project and the BOSS addition are or will be occurring at sports arenas nationwide, DHS intends to roll out the program at airports if they can measure some success. Indeed, beefing up airport security appears to be a major goal of the project.

The privacy impact assessments raise more questions than they provide answers.

Might STIDP and BOSS be used in tandem with the mother of all surveillance camera systems, which is currently installed at Boston’s Logan airport? Might our drivers’ license photos be added to the database from which it checks the images of faces in large crowds? Might this face recognition program migrate from airports onto our public streets and trains and buses, as have so many other surveillance technologies?

The government has big plans for biometric identification. All signs point towards the eventual eradication of anonymity in public, as a result. Let’s hope that measures like Congressman Ed Markey’s drone privacy legislation and the bipartisan GPS Act are just the tip of the privacy statute iceberg, and that our elected officials act to protect our faces, irises and other biometric identifiers before we live in a Minority Report world.

Clearly we all want to be safe. But we also want freedom. As far as these biometric identification schemes are concerned, the jury is still out as to whether or not they’d actually significantly contribute to our public safety. But we can be sure they would impact our right to be left alone. Let’s not let that happen.

If drones are any lesson, making a stink about an issue has a way of getting congress’ attention. So go forth and talk about biometrics. The holidays are coming! 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.