Report: NSA facial recognition program collects 'millions' of photos from the Web

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Here’s another reason to think twice before you post photos of yourself on the Internet: The New York Times reported Sunday that the National Security Agency collects millions of photos each day from electronic communication and analyzes them as part of a major facial recognition effort.

According to the leaked documents obtained by the Times, of the millions of images it collects daily, the NSA harvests about 55,000 that it considers to be “facial recognition quality.”

The report says that “it is not clear how many people around the world, and how many Americans, might have been caught up in the effort,” and goes on to state that current US privacy and surveillance laws don’t specifically protect against the use of facial recognition technology to identify individuals.

The NSA’s facial recognition program is separate from the agency’s bulk metadata collection program, which collects information such as which phone numbers you’ve dialed. According to the Times, the NSA still needs to get court approval to collect images from American citizens, since they fall under the same legal umbrella as the content of an email or the audio from a phone call—neither of which can be collected without a warrant.

For its part, an NSA spokesperson tells the Times that the agency can’t get at driver’s license or passport photo databases, but the agency refused to say whether it collects photos from social media “through means other than communications intercepts.”

Although these specific revelations are new, experts have voiced concerns about the impact of facial recognition technology on your privacy for a number of years.

In 2011, Facebook introduced a feature that could automatically tag people in photos, which had privacy activists up in arms. Senator Al Franken went on the record in 2012 to call for controls on how companies and government agencies can use facial recognition technology to identify individuals. And in 2013, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit over the FBI’s use of facial recognition.

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