The National Security Agency is collecting millions of images of people from the Internet every day, based on top-secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden in 2011.
A report by the New York Times cites one of these documents, saying that the NSA is creating a massive facial recognition database by intercepting millions of images every day, with around 55,000 of these images having "facial recognition quality" and "tremendous untapped potential."
The NSA, which was once focused only on oral and written communications for surveillance, has broadened its scope and now considers identifiers such as facial images and fingerprints as central to its mission of hunting down terrorists and "other targets."
"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," notes the NSA in a 2010 classified document.
The documents also show that the use of facial recognition has intensified under President Barack Obama's administration after the government thwarted two terrorist attacks on American territory. The first was intended in 2009 by a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, also called the Underwear Bomber, who attempted to trigger a bomb hidden in his underwear while on a plane en route to Detroit in December. The second incident happened only a few months later, when Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, attempted to blow up a car in Times Square.
"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," NSA spokesperson Vanee M. Vines tells the New York Times.
Vines also says that the NSA does not collect facial images from databases of American passports and driver's licenses, stating that the spy agency is still required to seek court approval to collect communications data from Americans. Photographs, aside from emails and telephone conversations, are considered a form of communication.
Vines, however, declined to comment when asked whether the NSA had a database of facial images collected from social networks such as Facebook, or whether it had access to the State Department's database of photos of foreign visa applicants. Many experts believe the State Department has the country's biggest database of facial photos of passport holders and visa applicants.
However, the documents show that the NSA gathers facial images by intercepting video conferences, collecting data about airline passengers and gaining access to national identity card databases in other countries. The NSA has also attempted to enter databases found in Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The NSA uses a sophisticated new program called Wellspring that intercepts emails and other communications then collects what it recognizes as facial images, says the documents. The agency also uses PittPatt, a facial recognition program bought by Google in 2011.