NSA Is Collecting Millions of Web Images for Facial Recognition Databases

This article is from the archive of our partner .

In a move that should surprise no one, anywhere, ever, the National Security Agency (you know, that government force in charge of spying on people to keep Americans safe) is working to develop facial recognition programs, using the millions images they harvest through regular surveillance.

According to a report in The New York Times, the NSA is working on creating facial recognition software that can process images from digital communications, such as emails, text messages and video conferences that it already intercepts. The project has been in the works for four years.

Unlike the FBI and state governments, the NSA does not have access to driver's license or passport photos. Instead, they are working on pulling images in an alternative way. Documents revealed through Edward Snowden claim that the NSA intercepts millions of images every day from digital communications. 

As federal privacy and surveillance laws have protections for facial images, the digital communication images being pulled by the NSA are likely involving those who are overseas. If the NSA wants to collect facial images of Americans, they would need the same court approval as when emails or phone calls are collected. However, if an American is digitally communicating with someone outside of America, this could be an exception to privacy rules. 

Recommended Reading

Vanee M. Vines, NSA spokesperson, issued this statement to the New York Times, "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." Vines notes that part of why they are seeking this method is because they do not have access to photographs in state databases, driver's license photos or passport photos. She declined to say whether the NSA collected any images from Facebook or other social media platforms. 

While some Americans might find the project invasive, we already paint a very clear photo of ourselves online willingly. As Digital Shadow showed us, an entire profile (including many facial images) can be built in seconds by anyone, not just a government agency. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.