June 13, 2014. Washington. Americans have resisted a national ID for decades mostly out of well deserved fears that the federal government will abuse the system. Obamacare was supposed to usher in a unique RFID chip card for each American, but the Affordable Care Act has been a train crash from the start. And the NSA is desperately in need of a unique identifier to sort its quadrillions of pieces of secretly obtained information from the unsuspecting American people.
Our faces have become our new national ID card. Image courtesy of ExtremeTech.com.
Apparently, the nation’s domestic spy apparatus isn’t waiting for Congress or the American people to enact a national identification system. According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the NSA has instituted its own National ID, and that ID is your face.
Harvesting our faces
It’s an idea right out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. According to the New York Times, who broke the story after pouring through the dossier of leaked NSA spy documents compliments of Edward Snowden, ‘The agency has turned to new software to exploit the flood of images included in emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications, the NSA documents reveal.’
One of the leaked NSA communications was quoted explaining, “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.” Of course, the “target” the NSA is referring to is you and me and every other law abiding American citizen.
According to the internal NSA documents, the agency steals millions of images a day from the American people. Of those, roughly 55,000 per day are high enough quality for the agency’s facial recognition software to recognize and categorize them based on the subject’s actual identity. Follow-up agency communications called its archive of pictures, “tremendous untapped potential”.
The leaked documents also included an actual presentation slide showing what the final result is. At any given instant, agents can enter a subjects picture into their computers, or enter a subjects name or other identifier, and the software will instantly produce a full screen docket of personal information about the individual. The sample data for one person included multiple pictures, some with facial hair and some without, some bald and some with hair, as well as listings of friends, TSA status, terror watch inclusions, recent travels, highlights from the person’s files at the other 15 domestic spy agencies, associations with known terrorists or terror groups, and the normal data like address, family, employer, etc.
The leaked documents and the reporting from the Times seem to sidestep their way around the recent controversy and outrage over NSA spying on Americans without cause or warrants. Like the agency’s other secret domestic spy programs, this one appears to acknowledge that the government can’t spy on individual Americans without a warrant for each suspect. But just like local police skirt the law with roadblocks and the NSA has used blanket collection of America’s communications, NSA lawyers take the stance that as long as they spy on all Americans equally, they don’t need a warrant or probable cause to maintain permanent spy files on each citizen.
The NY Times talked to Alessandro Acquisti, an expert on facial recognition technology at Carnegie Mellon University who said, “There are still technical limitations on it, but the computational power keeps growing, and the databases keep growing, and the algorithms keep improving.”
The report also revealed that the NSA isn’t alone in spending billions of dollars to create a new secret national identification database. The authors reveal that the FBI has been working on its own separate system that does basically the same thing, but with the Bureau’s voluminous database of fingerprints and mug shots already at its disposal. The programs have even been accused of breaking into individuals’ Facebook accounts and the drivers license databases of each state to steal its already existing photos and matching personal information.
As if the Edward Snowden documents didn’t exist, the NSA is denying every single accusation made above. The Times article quotes Agency spokeswoman Vanee Vines responding to the leaked documents, “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.”
The Times report went on to quote the NSA’s blanket denial writing, ‘She added that the NSA did not have access to photographs in state databases of driver’s licenses or to passport photos of Americans, while declining to say whether the agency had access to the State Department database of photos of foreign visa applicants. She also declined to say whether the NSA collected facial imagery of Americans from Facebook and other social media through means other than communications intercepts.’
According to some in Congress, even if the accusations are true, there may not be anything anybody can do about it. Facial recognition technology is so new, there aren’t any laws or guidelines regulating its use by corporations or government agencies. “Unfortunately, our privacy laws provide no express protections for facial recognition data,” US Senator Al Franken (D-MN), a staunch privacy rights advocate, admitted to the publication when asked about the leaked documents.
Fortunately, if there’s a silver lining to the shocking revelations, it’s that the bulk of the NSA communications show that the Agency is using its rapidly advancing technology mainly on foreign suspects. And ominously, the NSA has admitted to all the accusations made above, except only outside the US. For instance, the leaked communications show NSA agents attempted to obtain all the images in the national ID registries from the countries of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
For more information, read the full report from the New York Times.
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