The National Security Agency intercepts “millions of images per day” for use in a previously-undisclosed facial recognition database, James Risen and Laura Poitras report in The New York Times, citing documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In addition to using faces to track and identify targets, one top-secret PowerPoint presentation released by the Times showed efforts to use other information unique to individuals, including iris scans, fingerprints, voices, and manner of walking.
While the NSA’s primary mission is in foreign intelligence, the Times report noted it was unclear whether photos of Americans were caught in the database, as neither surveillance or federal privacy laws “provide specific protections for facial images,” wrote Risen and Poitras.
An NSA spokesperson told The Times the agency is required to get a court order to collect imagery of U.S. citizens, however.
“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,” Vanee M. Vines, the agency spokeswoman, told The Times.
The facial recognition effort of the U.S.-based NSA brings to mind previous reporting from The Guardian in February — also citing Snowden documents — which revealed that Britain’s GCHQ surveillance agency had collected millions of still webcam images from Yahoo users with a program called Optic Nerve.
While the Yahoo images were collected by GCHQ — as one of the trusted “five eyes” intelligence services with an information-sharing agreement — it is possible the NSA had access to them, although the documents The Guardian reported on did not make that fully clear.
An interesting use case from the NSA’s software is in determining location, according to the Times. One photo, showing a group of men standing near a waterfront dock, was able to be matched up with a spy satellite image of the same dock to determine that location as a militant training facility in Pakistan.
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