NSA Wants a Good Look at Your Photos (Aren't You Flattered?)



Have you been wondering if maybe the National Security Agency is just a huge version of AdultFriendFinder cobbled together by people who know how to work the federal budgetary process? It just could be. The latest evidence comes in the form of revelations that the spook agency is gathering huge numbers of images from around the world for use in its facial recognition program.

According to James Risen and Laura Poitras at 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.

Facial recognition technology has become something of a law enforcement must-have in recent years. Cops in the San Diego area wander around taking snapshots of passersby with their smartphones to match to the federally subsidized Tactical Identification System. One officer told reporters he uses his "spidy senses" as a judge of when to try to make a match.

Separately, the FBI plans to have 52 million of our mugs in its own Next Generation Identification database by the end of 2015. (You're surprised that the feds have competing and duplicative facial recognition programs?)

The specifications for that FBI system allowed that it "shall return an incorrect candidate a maximum of 20% of the time." Which makes you wonder just how accurate the NSA system is in correctly matching suspected international do-ers of bad deeds. If a state or federal database wrongly tags a suspect, your door may end up off its hinges during a wrong-house raid. Drones, by contrast, don't even have the good manners to stand on the back of your neck while they figure out where to pass the blame.

State and local agencies raid drivers license databases and social media for their images, while the feds have access to that plus huge databases of passport photos, visa applicants, and the like. The NSA apparently pulls in images from private communications, including video, too. Yes, those videos, through the Optic Nerve program.

A federally funded AdultFriendFinder, after all.