According to The New York Times, evidence sourced from documents leaked by none other than Edward Snowden has shown that the National Security Agency is collecting “millions of facial images” from across the Web every day.
The documents presented to the NYT showed that the NSA’s dependence on facial recognition technology has increased considerably under the Obama administration. The NSA has been utilizing new software to effectively “exploit the flood of images included in emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications,” according to the newspaper. The NSA appears to be considering the processing of millions of facial images as vital as processing written and verbal communications.
Of the millions of images being collected, about 55,000 of them are “facial recognition quality images”.
“The government leads the way in developing huge face recognition databases, while the private sector leads in accurately identifying people under challenging conditions,” said Jennifer Lynch, the Senior Staff Attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She also said that “the government and the private sector are both investing billions of dollars into face recognition.”
In response to the NYT article, NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said “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.”
Since facial images are considered by the NSA to be a type of communication, the agency has defended that court approval would be required to collect images of American citizens, much like the agency needing court approval to be listening to phone calls or reading emails.
“Unfortunately, our privacy laws provide no express protections for facial recognition data,” Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) pointed out in a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration last December.
The documents obtained by Snowden do not specify how many people worldwide, or in the United States, have been subjects of these interceptions of images. Facial recognition software has been in use for quite some time and is constantly advancing, but there remains room for improvement in its reliability.