Privacy SOS

Snowden leak: NSA harvests face prints from private communications

Over the weekend, the New York Times disclosed that the State Department, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security are not alone among federal agencies seeking to compile vast troves of biometric data about millions of people. The NSA is in on the face recognition craze, too, and has plans to expand its collections to include iris scans.

Laura Poitras and James Risen report on documents leaked by Edward Snowden:

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.

It’s not news that the federal government and intelligence agencies—as well as local police—are working hard to eliminate the last vestiges of privacy and anonymity we possess in the offline world through the use of invasive biometric tracking technologies. Nor is it news that federal agencies are accumulating huge quantities of personal biometric information in intelligence databases. But until now we did not know that any US intelligence agency collects biometric images from private communications, as the NSA is doing in its TUNDRA FREEZE program.

It sounds like the agency has also scraped images from the largest face database in the world: Facebook. When the NYT asked the NSA if it harvests photos from Facebook or other social networking services, a spokesperson “declined to say.”

Previously public documents reveal that the DOJ, DHS, and DoD—the parent department of the NSA—share biometric information through the joint FBI-DoD Biometric Center of Excellence, which houses the Next Generation Identification system. There, face prints collected by the NSA, FBI, DHS, US military, and state and local governments sit side by side, ready to be mined on a mass scale as soon as the real-time biometric tracking technology is good enough to deploy in our communities nationwide—unless we stop it.

Read more about face recognition.

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