NSA Compiling Secret, Massive Database for Facial-Recognition Program. Relax, It's for Terrorists Only!


Update (11:50 A.M. ET): Read J.D. Tuccille's take on how the feds are creating the world's largest friend-finder network EVER.

Add this to the latest revelation about secret government programs that have come to light thanks to Edward Snowden (what a year it's been since the contents of his thumb drive, iPod Nano, or whatever he used to transfer his cache of documents). Turns out that the NSA is hoovering up huge amounts of pictures and images of people from every possible source, the better to identify, track, and capture terrorists, persons of interest, and, well, just about everyone else on the planet.

From The New York Times:

The National Security Agency is harvesting huge numbers of images of people from communications that it intercepts through its global surveillance operations for use in sophisticated facial recognition programs, according to top-secret documents.

The spy agency's reliance on facial recognition technology has grown significantly over the last four years as the agency has turned to new software to exploit the flood of images included in emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications, the N.S.A. documents reveal. Agency officials believe that technological advances could revolutionize the way that the N.S.A. finds intelligence targets around the world, the documents show. The agency's ambitions for this highly sensitive ability and the scale of its effort have not previously been disclosed.

The agency intercepts "millions of images per day" — including about 55,000 "facial recognition quality images" — which translate into "tremendous untapped potential," according to 2011 documents obtained from the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. While once focused on written and oral communications, the N.S.A. 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.

Whole thing here.

Back in the October 2002 issue of Reason, David Kopel and Michael Krause of Colorado's Independence Institute wrote about facial-recognition technology (FRT). At that stage, FRT didn't work very well (if at all) and was spooky enough to most people that its widespread implementation seemed unlikely.

Ultimately, the future of face scanning will depend on the political process. There is almost no chance that the American public or their elected officials would vote in favor of tracking everyone all the time. Yet face scanning is typically introduced and then expanded by administrative fiat, without specific legislative permission.

So there is a strong possibility that future Americans will be surprised to learn from history books that in the first centuries of American independence citizens took for granted that the government did not and could not monitor all of their movements and activities in public places.

Read the whole thing.

Of course, if FRT is conducted in secret, uses social media and Web sources in addition to surveillance cameras, and is used "only" on "terrorists," well, it may be hard to see how politicians would ever vote against such a system. Or, even scarier, that they would even be required to vote on the matter.

Here's a scene from Blade Runner (1982), in which the replicant named Leon gets touchy about his mother while being undergoing a high-tech test to establish his humanity (or lack thereof). This story reminds me of that for some reason. Blade Runner is set in 2019. What does it mean if the only thing director Ridley Scott and crew got wrong about the future is an inability to anticipate vaping?