NSA Turns to Web Images for Facial Recognition Programs

According to top-secret 2011 documents released by Edward Snowden, the NSA is collecting online images of people for its facial recognition programs. As estimated in the documents, the agency intercepts about 55,000 images that have facial-recognition quality. Civil liberties advocates are concerned that these technologies could result in an invasion of privacy. However, neither privacy nor surveillance laws protect against the government’s use of facial images.

As technology advances, the NSA believes methods of finding intelligence targets will be revolutionized.


“While once focused on written and oral communications, the NSA 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,” reports The New York Times.

Along with emails and phone conversations, the NSA would be required to get court approval for images of Americans. However, if an American communicates with an international target, exceptions may be made.

Alessandro Acquisti, a researcher on facial recognition technology at Carnegie Mellon University, explains, “There are still technical limitations on [facial recognition technology], but the computational power keeps growing, and the databases keep growing, and the algorithms keep improving.” 

The FBI seeks to combine its identification systems, including fingerprint and facial imagery, in order to form “the next generation identification.”

“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,” said Vanee M. Vines, NSA spokeswoman.

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