NSA harvests millions of images daily to build new facial recognition system

It has been revealed that America's National Security Agent is collecting millions of images of faces from web searches each day. They are reportedly being used to build a sophisticated facial recognition program and are alleged to be accessed through its global surveillance operations including the MYSTIC phone tapping program.

The New York Times reported that documents leaked by Edward Snowden, famed for releasing details of the NSA's snooping on the internet usage of Americans, originating from 2011, show that the NSA is actively intercepting 'millions' of images each day. Of these, around 55,000 are said to be of a sufficient quality to be used for facial recognition.

Facial recognition software is getting increasingly complex and can now accurately identify hundreds of points at once

Neither surveillance or privacy laws specifically offer protection for the collection of facial images and it is not clear whether the operation takes place just within the USA or if other countries have also been targeted. One document from 2010 noted

“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 FBI is currently developing a system to combine its automated fingerprint identification system with facial imagery. Social media sites such as Facebook are also regularly used to help identify targets.

Many people will view the unauthorized collection of images of their faces from the internet to be an unacceptable breach of privacy. Although having a huge, comprehensive facial recognition database to refer to would be incredibly helpful during police investigations, the majority of innocent citizens are likely to see it as rather controversial if they have to contribute to the system by inadvertently and without consultation supply images of themselves to the NSA.

Vanee M. Vines, a spokeswoman for the NSA, justified the collection of the images by saying

“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."

Many people may be inclined to respond by arguing that the NSA, designed to protect the best interests of the public, would be better at 'doing its job' if they stopped invading citizens' privacy. It's also important to note that Vines' statement does not explicitly confirm the collection of the images, but it doesn't deny the existence of the program either.

Source: The New York Times | Image via End The Lie

Report a problem with article
Previous Story

Microsoft and ESPN launch World Cup Essentials site with exclusive content

Next Story

New accessories unveiled for the One Plus One

46 Comments

Commenting is disabled on this article.

This is what happens when FB makes their profiles public by default.

Every server could be "privacy first, with an option to make individual things public manual later."

Come on Snowden, this is nothing new. Can you leak something that's actually interesting? Like maybe something about aliens?

Enron said,
Come on Snowden, this is nothing new. Can you leak something that's actually interesting? Like maybe something about aliens?

Why are you blaming snowden? He leaked all the documents to the media years ago, he isn't actively releasing it now, that's being done by the media, blame them for being slow.

Enron said,
Come on Snowden, this is nothing new. Can you leak something that's actually interesting? Like maybe something about aliens?

Eh, do you think a public agency like the NSA would handle that? They'd have that all under a black agency (aka doesn't exist on paper anywhere)

neufuse said,

Eh, do you think a public agency like the NSA would handle that? They'd have that all under a black agency (aka doesn't exist on paper anywhere)


With the intelligence power the NSA has, they should've come across plenty of real Alien information.

Enron said,
Come on Snowden, this is nothing new. Can you leak something that's actually interesting? Like maybe something about aliens?

What was the name of the guy who did it..... Bob Lazard? He was ridiculed by a well arranged campaign but years later his statements about those new elements were proven true.

Oh bull, we know they already had this, just look at TV, they've been using this since the early 90's </sarcasim>

Harvesting images that are "public" in order to build a face recognition database is hardly sinister. It's not like they don't know how you look from your state ID or drivers license or passport picture already.

I really don't find this as a issue, just don't post pics of yourself all over the internet if it's a problem for you.

Technically nothing is really public. It's not because someone put a picture of himself on his website that you can freely use his picture without asking him. It is still his picture and if you want to use it for anything you must ask before.

I don't mind private companies doing it that much. But the government should not. The government should ask for permission first.

I'm inclined to agree on this one in particular.

Using publically available data for this purpose is what the NSA should be doing.

LaP said,
Technically nothing is really public. It's not because someone put a picture of himself on his website that you can freely use his picture without asking him. It is still his picture and if you want to use it for anything you must ask before.

I don't mind private companies doing it that much. But the government should not. The government should ask for permission first.

That depends on what you view as "public domain". Are they breaking into your private account to view only your personal pictures that you keep for yourself and or family or are they finding things that anyone, like you and me, can find?

They're also not really "using" them in the sense that they're not taking your face and putting it on an ad to make money, it's going into a database, same place your drivers license photo is already, so they can then know it's you when they see you on their CCTVs outside, maybe breaking the law.

It really is how you want to view it, is the picture of you on a "public" website public or still private? I mean heck, newspapers have been taking pictures of people out in public and using them for years, I doubt they asked or paid to do so.

LaP said,
Technically nothing is really public. It's not because someone put a picture of himself on his website that you can freely use his picture without asking him. It is still his picture and if you want to use it for anything you must ask before.

I don't mind private companies doing it that much. But the government should not. The government should ask for permission first.


Technically, the moment you put something on the internet. It should be regarded as "Publically accessible".

So you are okay already with the NSA doing this on their own people and put every human being under general suspicion. great.. welcome to the land of the free

-adrian- said,
So you are okay already with the NSA doing this on their own people and put every human being under general suspicion. great.. welcome to the land of the free

Yes. It's there job, after all. What should they be doing?

They already use passport and drivers license pictures for this purpose. A few more publically accessible images only really add info about foreign citizens.

"The National Security Agency (NSA) is a U.S. intelligence agency responsible for providing the United States government with encrypted communications (information assurance) and the reading of encrypted communications (signals intelligence) of other nations." ... well.. I will let you "give freedom for security" sheep just believe what you want to believe in.

Shadowzz said,

Technically, the moment you put something on the internet. It should be regarded as "Publically accessible".

It depends... At least in theory. If it is a picture in a public page it is public indeed, if it is on a page, supposedly , available only to select people is not public at all.

LaP said,
Technically nothing is really public. It's not because someone put a picture of himself on his website that you can freely use his picture without asking him. It is still his picture and if you want to use it for anything you must ask before.
You better read Google and Facebook's TOS........ It's in the first paragraph.
I don't mind private companies doing it that much. But the government should not. The government should ask for permission first.

And Snowden is a terrorist exactly how?? The man is a hero for leaking stuff like this.

I would like to know if there any Americans who still think he is a terrorist and also think they would rather not know things like this their government is doing.

DeltaXray said,
And Snowden is a terrorist exactly how?? The man is a hero for leaking stuff like this.

I would like to know if there any Americans who still think he is a terrorist and also think they would rather not know things like this their government is doing.


This is just your opinion, man. I don't like him one bit.

Jarrichvdv said,

This is just your opinion, man. I don't like him one bit.

Thanks for making good and bad more clear. Was kinda getting hard to distinguish lately.

coolhund said,

Thanks for making good and bad more clear. Was kinda getting hard to distinguish lately.

Because he, like me. Probably seem to feel like this is something personal from Snowden against the NSA. And not that Snowden did this for the righteous reason, namely us, the people.

DeltaXray said,
And Snowden is a terrorist exactly how?? The man is a hero for leaking stuff like this.

Because he stopped being a whistleblower the moment he began leaking secrets about how the US was spying on other countries. That's inexcusable.

Leaking about illegal (unconstitutional) surveillance systems is one thing. But he went way beyond that, leaking NSA information indiscriminately.

Shadowzz said,

Because he, like me. Probably seem to feel like this is something personal from Snowden against the NSA. And not that Snowden did this for the righteous reason, namely us, the people.

Yeah I know you believe that and I am sorry, I forgot there are a lot of indoctrinated republicans here. Im used to European forums.

Shadowzz said,

Because he, like me. Probably seem to feel like this is something personal from Snowden against the NSA. And not that Snowden did this for the righteous reason, namely us, the people.

I bet the NSA posted a comment on his Facebook that he has a stupid face and Snowden went all drama queen and decided to become one of the most hunted men on the planet just to spite them.

Jarrichvdv said,

This is just your opinion, man. I don't like him one bit.

A couple of hundreds years ago there were a some of people who had your same feelings about a guy called George Washington.....

DeltaXray said,
And Snowden is a terrorist exactly how?? The man is a hero for leaking stuff like this.

I would like to know if there any Americans who still think he is a terrorist and also think they would rather not know things like this their government is doing.


I don't think he's a terrorist. Besides, what is the definition of a terrorist? I also remember Barack Obama promising the most transparent Washington yet. Snicker..

I don't know but there's a huge swathe of Americans calling him a 'terrorist', Who has done 'great damage' to the country.

How? Because he has called out their BS practices? How many of these people feel it is better to NOT to know about the things he has leaked? No point getting all self rightous and hating a man despite having your snouts in the trough eating all this information up.

Condemning Snowden is like eating a slice of cake you know is stolen but then slating the person who gave it to you for stealing but still feeling all fat and happy that you ate that cake, because it was OK since you didn't steal it.

Can't have it both ways, America.

People who hates Snowden and Assange without good reason is usually those that has their CPU reprogrammed for good. Nothing else will compute.

coolhund said,

Yeah I know you believe that and I am sorry, I forgot there are a lot of indoctrinated republicans here. Im used to European forums.


Strange, cause I'm Dutch.
And to be called a republican for having an opinion, wow....

Look into the story, it appears like he got butt hurt by the NSA/US Gov and wanted to pay them back. Well that's how it looks to me.
Not like he is some savior with a mastermind plan that went working for the NSA with the plans to 'free humanity'.

But keep treating him like a modern Jesus.

Shadowzz said,

Strange, cause I'm Dutch.
And to be called a republican for having an opinion, wow....

Look into the story, it appears like he got butt hurt by the NSA/US Gov and wanted to pay them back. Well that's how it looks to me.
Not like he is some savior with a mastermind plan that went working for the NSA with the plans to 'free humanity'.

But keep treating him like a modern Jesus.

Yeah I noticed later that was the wrong term.
Conservative would be more fitting.

I am not treating him like a modern Jesus. I am treating him like an honest person who came out with unbelievable stuff, that has no place in a democratic world.
Hes not a Jesus because of that because he is not alone doing that, those people are just extremely rare, because they refuse to be corrupt.

And where you read that would really interest me. I mean I know many people even think he gave China and/or Russia information and he planned to go to Russia from the start, and those people can be silenced with facts, but how the ###### do you come up with something like that? You must be extremely biased to read something like that out of Snowdens history. But please, explain.

Shadowzz said,

Strange, cause I'm Dutch.
And to be called a republican for having an opinion, wow....

Look into the story, it appears like he got butt hurt by the NSA/US Gov and wanted to pay them back. Well that's how it looks to me.
Not like he is some savior with a mastermind plan that went working for the NSA with the plans to 'free humanity'.

But keep treating him like a modern Jesus.


Hi, I'm from Belgium btw :)

coolhund said,

Yeah I noticed later that was the wrong term.
Conservative would be more fitting.

I am not treating him like a modern Jesus. I am treating him like an honest person who came out with unbelievable stuff, that has no place in a democratic world.
Hes not a Jesus because of that because he is not alone doing that, those people are just extremely rare, because they refuse to be corrupt.

And where you read that would really interest me. I mean I know many people even think he gave China and/or Russia information and he planned to go to Russia from the start, and those people can be silenced with facts, but how the ###### do you come up with something like that? You must be extremely biased to read something like that out of Snowdens history. But please, explain.


The thing is, he is far from the first whistleblower. There have been others sacrificing their lives. But everyone ignored them..

Now suddenly some guy that appears to have some grudge, releases a ton of semi-unknown information. Keep in mind, most of what he reported was already known.
Or are we still claiming that 3 years ago we had NO CLUE that the US Gov was spying the world wide web?

I havent read directly that he has some personal vendetta or something. But thats what I read between the lines. The way he reacts, the way NSA/US Gov reacts, the way his news is reported.
Again, its my opinion.

And if you, on the basis of my single opinion of Snowden start calling me conservative or republican...... says more about you then my opinion does about me.
You don't know me, and don't act like you do based on one stinking frontpage post.

Jarrichvdv said,

Hi, I'm from Belgium btw :)

*swaait*

Shadowzz said,

The thing is, he is far from the first whistleblower. There have been others sacrificing their lives. But everyone ignored them..

Now suddenly some guy that appears to have some grudge, releases a ton of semi-unknown information. Keep in mind, most of what he reported was already known.
Or are we still claiming that 3 years ago we had NO CLUE that the US Gov was spying the world wide web?

I havent read directly that he has some personal vendetta or something. But thats what I read between the lines. The way he reacts, the way NSA/US Gov reacts, the way his news is reported.
Again, its my opinion.

And if you, on the basis of my single opinion of Snowden start calling me conservative or republican...... says more about you then my opinion does about me.
You don't know me, and don't act like you do based on one stinking frontpage post.
*swaait*

Well, such stupidity normally only comes from those people. If the shoe fits...
And you have just proven it again. Nobody knew anything. It was only suspected by people who were called conspiracy nut. Whistleblowers before him never had such hard facts and so many of them and such unbelievable ones. I you really think all Snowden leaked was that the NSA spies on us, it just shows that you havent understood the tiniest bit of whats really going on. I mean how can ANYONE who has followed this Snowden thing since last year make such a stupid remark? Seriously... Normally only these conservative nuts try to deny hard facts that obviously. At least fanatics, and what kind of fanatic are you? A USA fanboy? I dont know, but you have your agenda if youre in such massive denial and even are proud of it/think that youre right.

Yeah, youre pretty bad at reading between the lines, then blame me for doing the same thing on your posts? Jealous?

Uh duh, you know if FB and Google are and have been developing systems like that, the government is too. Seriously, when is this guy going to say something that's actually surprising to anyone with a tech background?

He did many times. This just isnt a surprise anymore, because we now know, thanks to him, they will do ANYTHING to keep their country "safe".

When I see the government and face recognition, it reminds me of the movie "Minority Report". I will not be surprise if the government implement a similar system to track every citizen.

coolhund said,
He did many times. This just isnt a surprise anymore, because we now know, thanks to him, they will do ANYTHING to keep their country "safe".

This wouldn't have surprised me even 10 years ago.

The point is not about "surprising" anyone, but denouncing thing. Without proofs, someone else would just be discredited as a conspiracist. Now, there are people, like you, that are "banalizing" any problems of that kind. If we stop being shocked from anything, just be prepared to accept the unacceptable.

macoman said,
When I see the government and face recognition, it reminds me of the movie "Minority Report". I will not be surprise if the government implement a similar system to track every citizen.

Person of Interest too.

Enron said,

This wouldn't have surprised me even 10 years ago.


There have been plenty of whistleblowers like him with the same amount of proof (I never get to see the actual "proof", only news articles claiming they have the "proof") or the little "proof" where most important info is blacked out.

And yeah, this stuff is as old as the internet, people have been warned for many years, but now all of a sudden people go "OMG HOW COULD THEY, I NEVER KNEW"