Suspend those selfies? NSA facial recognition raises eyebrows

by Cullen Welch

posted Monday, June 9, 2014 at 10:31 AM EDT


The once sci-fi-esque idea of digital facial recognition is now a tangible reality as the National Security Agency ups its surveillance capabilities. Considered to be "tremendous untapped potential," it captures tens of thousands of "facial recognition quality images" per day through extensive monitoring of global communications via email, text messaging, social media, and other videoconferencing software. As the world trends towards ubiquitous connectivity, the N.S.A. fully intends to take "a full-arsenal approach that digitally exploits the clues a target leaves behind" to "compile biographic and biometric information" and "implement precision targeting."

Pictured: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "underwear bomber," [left] and Faisal Shahzad, an attempted Times Square car bomber [right]

This type and depth of surveillance may have once been the fantasy of next-generation dreamers but it is now culminating into a somewhat alarming realm of hyper-visibility. Even the government is having "difficulties" -- intentionally or not -- keeping up legally with the pace of the technological development.

"Unfortunately, our privacy laws provide no express protections for facial recognition data," said Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. Certainly an interesting quote to consider, in light of the known fact that both the private sector and the U.S. government are pouring billions of dollars into facial recognition R&D, according to Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer and facial recognition expert at the Electronic Frontier.

The NSA's National Security Operations Center (in 2012)

Of course, facial recognition technology still has a long way to go before reaching a foolproof pinnacle. Low-res images and photos taken from lateral angles may be difficult for the software to handle. Though, there is one truly impressive (albeit scary) bit of James Bond gadgetry here: the N.S.A. is now capable of successfully matching top-down spy satellite photographs with personal images snapped outdoors to pinpoint the exact geographical origin of the image. Photographers beware!

Check out the full article here for a more in-depth look at some of the N.S.A.'s dealings with facial recognition surveillance.

(via The New York Times)