NSA Collects Millions of Images a Day for Facial Recognition Project

FILE - This Sept. 19, 2007 file photo shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md. When Edward Snowden joined friends in his late teens to edit a website built around a shared interest in Japanese animation, they chartered the venture from an apartment in military housing at Fort George G. Meade, the 8-square-mile installation that houses the NSA center dubbed the Puzzle Palace and calls itself the "nation's pre-eminent center for information, intelligence and cyber." (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
The National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md.
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Documents in the Edward Snowden files reveal the NSA collects millions of internet images per day as part of a top-secret facial recognition program at the agency, The New York Times reports:

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.

"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" that can help "implement precision targeting," noted a 2010 document.

Authors James Risen and Laura Poitras note that it is unclear how many people—both Americans and internationally—have been swept up in the system, observing “neither federal privacy law nor the nation’s surveillance laws provide specific protections for facial images.”

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The NSA would still require a warrant from a FISA court to access the information, though images transmitted overseas—perhaps via email or text message—may not receive similar protections.

An agency spokesperson told the Times that the NSA did not have access to passport photos or state driver’s license databases. She declined to answer whether the agency collected facial imagery from social media sites like Facebook.

It’s not the first time an intelligence agency has been called out for collecting images on the net. Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ reportedly surreptitiously intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of Internet users, including many that were sexually explicit.

It is unclear if the agency, which has information-sharing agreements with United States, shares this data with the NSA.