According to internal documents secured by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency is amassing a huge stockpile of digital photos for apparent use in identifying individuals. Among the millions of images collected each day, the NSA reportedly adds about 55,000 “facial recognition quality images” to its database per day, the released documents state.
Though the ultimate goals of this program remain unclear, a number of reports indicate what the NSA is able to do and how it might use those capabilities.
A 2010 document favors the agency “taking a full-arsenal approach that digitally exploits the clues a target leaves behind in their regular activities on the net” in an effort to find out the most relevant information about a subject.
Though the NSA considers the sharing of digital images to be a protected means of communication, it appears agents would be required to obtain a warrant in order to collect such information about Americans. Such distribution across national borders or with an NSA target, however, could be an exception to that rule.
As the New York Times reports, images being shared on social media and elsewhere are already being exploited by agencies including the FBI. The State Department reportedly possesses the federal government’s largest stockpile of these identifying photos.
What sets the NSA apart, though, is the massive database of other personal information that can complement the inclusion of such images.
Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Jennifer Lynch explained that facial recognition is a multi-billion dollar pursuit by government agencies and developers in the private sector. She said that, while courts have ruled recently in favor of protecting individual rights regarding such programs, plenty of obscurity remains.
Facial recognition capabilities remain limited by the quality of images being compared. For example, one NSA report from 2011 included a sample photograph of Osama bin Laden that netted results including four different men, whose only common feature appeared to be a beard.
Documents also indicate the agency is looking into securing iris scan technology. Officials declined to comment regarding whether the NSA is currently employing such tactics.
This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Informing And Equipping Americans Who Love Freedom