NSA Collects Your Selfies for Its Facial Recognition Program [NYT]

The NSA picks up photos from emails, social media, texts

Your photos aren’t really all that safe when you upload them online and it’s not because some of your friends may take them and pull a prank on you and photoshop some stupid stuff on them, but rather because the NSA is harvesting anything it can get its hands on.

Whether this comes as a surprise, after an entire year of shocking revelations, is not really relevant anymore. What is, however, is the fact that the global surveillance system that the agency has set in place doesn’t just collect photos, but it also knows who’s in them, thanks to its sophisticated facial recognition program.

According to The New York Times, the spy agency nowadays relies on facial recognition technology to exploit the photos it picks up along with the emails, text messages, social media conversations, videoconferences and other communication it collects.

The documents from Edward Snowden indicate that agency officials are confident that technical advances in the field of facial recognition could revolutionize the way the NSA detects intelligence targets around the world.

A file dated back to 2011 shows that the agency intercepts millions of images every day, including some 55,000 images that are perfect for the facial recognition software, which is a “tremendous untapped potential.”

Considering that in the years that have passed the “selfie” phenomenon has only blossomed, it’s safe to say that the NSA collects a lot more pictures that are perfect for its programs.

“It’s not just the traditional communications we’re after: It’s taking a full-arsenal approach that digitally exploits the clues a target leaves behind in their regular activities on the net to compile biographic and biometric information,” a file from 2010 reads, adding that this can help implement precision targeting.

The software developed by the NSA is quite advanced. According to the publication, a PowerPoint presentation from 2011 displays photos of a man both with and without beard in different settings and about two dozen data points about him, including his passport and visa status, known associates or suspected terrorist ties and comments from informants.

Unfortunately for everyone affected by this, the US has no federal privacy laws to offer protection for facial images, nor does the surveillance laws within the country cover this topic, much less in the rest of the world.

“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, spokesperson for the NSA.

The agency has mentioned, however, that the NSA does not have access to photographs in state databases of driver’s licenses or passport photos of Americans, although there’s no mention about whether or not the agency has access to the State Department data base of photos pertaining to foreign visa applicants.

If you’re wondering just how efficient the NSA’s system can be, it should be mentioned that Facebook has a similar tool at hand, even though it mainly wants to deploy it for picture tagging. Dubbed DeepFace, the company’s software maps 3D facial features and turns them into a flat model before filtering the results by a series of marks.

Facebook has managed to fine-tune the tool so that it provides an accuracy of 97.25 percent, which is close to humans, which got a 97.5 percent score in a facial recognition test. Considering how long the NSA has been working on the same tool, it’s pretty safe to say that theirs is, at the very least, just as good.

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