NSA Gathers Email Images For Facial Recognition

Edward Snowden privacy protest NSA US Washington © Rena Schild Shutterstock

The NSA has reportedly stockpiled a huge database of ‘facial recognition quality’ images from intercepted Internet communications to help build profiles of suspects

The NSA has greatly expanded its use of facial recognition imagery in the past four years, relying as one of its sources for such imagery on intercepted online communications such as emails, according to a New York Times report citing documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The NSA intercepts “millions of images per day”, including about 55,000 which are “facial recognition quality”, according to a secret 2011 document cited in the report. Such images reflect “tremendous untapped potential,” according to the document. The documents have not previously been disclosed, according to the Times.


Emails intercepted

For instance, one of the NSA’s broadest image-gathering efforts is a program that strips images from emails and other communications and displays those which might contain passport images, the report said.

Such programmes are part of a broader effort by the NSA to expand beyond written and oral communications to build a more complete profile of suspects, according to a 2010 document cited in the report.

“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,” the report said. This can help “implement precision targeting,” said the same document.

The agency collects images from intercepted emails, text messages, social media and videoconferences, according to the report.

Other US government bodies have facial recognition programmes, but the NSA is the only one to be able to match such images with material intercepted from private communications, according to the report. In 2010, the NSA achieved the ability to match images found in its own database with images in the US government’s main terrorist watch-list database, according to documents cited in the report.


The NSA can also compare intercepted personal photographs with satellite images of the same location, according to the report. The documents disclose that the agency uses both its own software and commercial facial recogntion software, including that from Google-owned PittPatt.

The government reportedly expanded its facial recognition efforts following attempted terrorist incidents in December 2009 and May 2010.

The use of facial recognition cited in the report goes far beyond a programme earlier reported by The Guardian, under which the NSA and GCHQ intercept webcam images from Yahoo users, according to the Times.

The NSA said its image-gathering and analysis efforts were intended to help pierce the disguises used by those intending to cause harm to the US and its allies.

“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,” an NSA spokeswoman told the Times.

False positives

UK-based activist group Privacy International told the BBC that the NSA’s programmes show that Britain was right to abandon national ID card efforts, which would have provided a “treasure trove” of image data to domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.

“Though it’s perceived as a sophisticated technique, even the NSA admits in its own presentation how prone to error it is,” a spokesman for the group told the BBC.

The NSA was recently reported to have a programme of intercepting IT equipment being exported outside the US in order to insert surveillance materials.

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