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The danger we face from the NSA’s collection of facial recognition images

Posted by on June 4, 2014.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

According to new Snowden files discussed by Laura Poitras and James Risen in the New York Times, the NSA is “harvesting huge numbers of images of people from communications that it intercepts through its global surveillance operations for use in sophisticated facial recognition programs, according to top-secret documents.” It seems to be collecting around a million images every day, including around 55,000 “facial recognition quality images”.

This should come as no surprise — we already know that with it’s GCHQ partner it is harvesting personal videos from Yahoo (Optic Nerve: millions of Yahoo webcam images intercepted by GCHQ). And the law enforcement value of having a huge database of facial biometrics can hardly be denied. In fact, it would be surprising if the NSA (and GCHQ and the French, German and Israeli agencies) were not doing this.

The question is really ‘what sort of society do we want?’ Do we want one as safe as government promises; or do we want one free from excessive government interference in our daily lives?

Firstly, government promises of security because of its surveillance are false. Despite all of this surveillance it did not detect or prevent the Boston bombing. In reality there is no evidence that government spying, intrusion and snooping has prevented any terrorist threat.

In fact, consider this from the part of a recent NBC interview with Snowden that was held back and not broadcast:

‘If we’re missing things like the Boston Marathon bombings where all of these mass-surveillance systems, every domestic dragnet in the world, didn’t reveal guys that the Russian intelligence service told us about by name, is that really the best way to protect our country or are we trying to throw money at a magic solution that’s actually not just costing us our safety, but our rights and our way of life?
NBC Censors Snowden’s Critical 9/11 Comments From Prime Time Audience

As for freedom from interference, this is guaranteed by the US constitution and national laws around the world — guaranteed but not delivered. So we are being asked to hand over guaranteed liberties for a false promise of security.

The question then arises, well, what’s the harm? We willingly post many of these photos on Facebook and LinkedIn, Twitter and G+ for all and sundry to see; so why should we worry if law enforcement has access to them?

Surveillance cameras linked to Trapwire

Surveillance cameras linked to Trapwire

Well, the harm comes from the totally automated, integrated, extensive and international nature of how the agencies will be using this data. For example, as far as I am aware ‘Trapwire’ has not come up in the Snowden files. But Trapwire exists. it is designed for use by government agencies, and even if it (or something similar) is not used for international mass surveillance yet, it inevitably will be in the future.

Trapwire seeks to concentrate and integrate surveillance cameras everywhere — including internationally. Add facial recognition tied into the NSA database of photos of just about everyone, and you can be found. You can be followed. You can be tracked wherever you go. They know which shop you are in (they already increasingly know where your car is and where it has been), who you have lunch with, and who you meet for a private chat.

Now imagine you have an apartment or flat in a building that also houses that nice young man downstairs. When you meet him in town, you naturally stop for a chat. The problem is, he is a person of interest — and now, because you are a known associate and because facial recognition has identified you, you are also a person of interest. Once you are in a law enforcement database it is almost impossible to get out — just ask those innocent people who have tried to get off the US no-fly database, or out of the UK police DNA database. Once you’ve been flagged, you remain flagged.

The problem with this type of mass surveillance carried out today is it turns us all into people of interest; it makes and treats all of us as suspects; it creates an environment where we need to prove our innocence rather than ensuring that government needs to prove our guilt. Mass surveillance is ultimately nothing less than mass control.


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