The selfie phenomenon is undoubtedly making the NSA’s job easier by producing a mountain of tagged online data to feed its facial recognition algorithms.
A report in The New York Times, based on documents from 2011 obtained by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, reveals that the US security agency’s reliance on facial recognition technology has grown significantly under the Obama administration – coinciding with a rise in popularity of taking and tagging self-portraits on online social networks.
The newspaper reports that the agency has turned to new software to process the flood of images being included in digital communication including social media, email, messaging, videoconferencing and other types of online comms. The 2011 documents show that agency officials believe technological advances in facial recognition software could revolutionize the way the NSA finds intelligence targets around the world.
According to the documents, the agency intercepts “millions” of images per day — including about 55,000 “facial recognition quality images” — although it is not clear how many images the agency has amassed in total at this point. The NSA describes facial recognition technology as offering “tremendous untapped potential” for tracking intelligence targets.
As well as its own in-house facial recognition software, the documents cited in the report note that the NSA also relies on commercially available facial recognition tech, including PittPatt — a company owned by Google – to process the data it is harvesting.
Facial images, fingerprints and other identifiers are now considered just as important to the NSA as written and oral communications, according to the report.
The paper says the NSA’s use of facial recognition technology goes far beyond previously detailed efforts. Back in February it emerged that the NSA and UK spy agencyGCHQ had run a joint program harvesting webcam imagery from Yahoo users, between 2008 and 2012, which included the collection of sexually explicit material.
While the NYT notes that the NSA does not have access to US state databases of drivers’ licenses or to passport photos of Americas (no such luck if you’re a foreigner of course), it’s likely that the mountain of tagged online data it can now sift through means it can obtain that intel on US citizens from other sources — such as, presumably, Facebook, Instagram (et al)’s huge store of selfies.