NSA Collects "Millions Of Images" Each Day For Its Facial Recognition Database

Tyler Durden's picture

With the NSA already reigning supreme when it comes to the capture of virtually every form of instantaneous electronic communication and interchange, aka the "flow" of data, there is one final threshold that the US superspy agency needed to cross before the biggest brother of all would have full control over not only the flow of information, but its stock too: a photographic database of virtually everyone. And courtesy of not only programs like Facebook, but also its access to government photographic data, the NSA is focusing on just that. As the NYT reports, the agency 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."

When we say "focusing", we mean just that, at a pace that is simply unprecedented:

"The agency intercepts “millions of images per day” — including about 55,000 “facial recognition quality images” — which translate into “tremendous untapped potential,” according to 2011 documents obtained from the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. While once focused on written and oral communications, the N.S.A. now considers facial images, fingerprints and other identifiers just as important to its mission of tracking suspected terrorists and other intelligence targets, the documents show."

The NSA is not shy about its intentions:

“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,” noted a 2010 document.

In addition to its traditionally favorite method of collecting data, namely unauthorized intercepts of emails and other electronic communications, the NSA has a cornucopia of prepared data it can parse.

State and local law enforcement agencies are relying on a wide range of databases of facial imagery, including driver’s licenses and Facebook, to identify suspects. The F.B.I. is developing what it calls its “next generation identification” project to combine its automated fingerprint identification system with facial imagery and other biometric data.

While it is the US State Department that has "what several outside experts say could be the largest facial imagery database in the federal government, storing hundreds of millions of photographs of American passport holders and foreign visa applicants", what sets the NSA apart, aside from having unchecked access to virtually all electronic data located anywhere in the world, is its ability to match images with huge troves of private communications.

The agency has developed sophisticated ways to integrate facial recognition programs with a wide range of other databases. It intercepts video teleconferences to obtain facial imagery, gathers airline passenger data and collects photographs from national identity card databases created by foreign countries, the documents show. They also note that the N.S.A. was attempting to gain access to such databases in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.


One of the N.S.A.’s broadest efforts to obtain facial images is a program called Wellspring, which strips out images from emails and other communications, and displays those that might contain passport images. In addition to in-house programs, the N.S.A. relies in part on commercially available facial recognition technology, including from PittPatt, a small company owned by Google, the documents show.

When asked for comment, an N.S.A. spokesman said the agency 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 N.S.A. collected facial imagery of Americans from Facebook and other social media through means other than communications intercepts. Which is a yes.

Ironically, while the NYT reports of several instances of false positives when using the database, the NSA's, and the administration's response has been one comparable to what Edward Snowden lamented yesterday when discussing 9/11: instead of focusing on improving the accuracy of its pinpoint matches, the NSA is simply expanding its database making it more unwieldy, and violating even more privacy statutes in the process.

And before someone says it was all Bush's fault, it appears Obama has taken a keen interest in boosting the NSA's photo database:

The N.S.A. has accelerated its use of facial recognition technology under the Obama administration, the documents show, intensifying its efforts after two intended attacks on Americans that jarred the White House. The first was the case of the so-called underwear bomber, in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, tried to trigger a bomb hidden in his underwear while flying to Detroit on Christmas in 2009. Just a few months later, in May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, attempted a car bombing in Times Square.

Finally, while faces can and do lead to false positive results, with the use of disguises or other reasons, the final frontier that the NSA appears to be gunning for are iris scans, which like fingerprints, are unique to an individual and as such won't lead to a false identification.

... the agency has considered getting access to iris scans through its phone and email surveillance programs. But asked whether the agency is now doing so, officials declined to comment. The documents also indicate that the N.S.A. collects iris scans of foreigners through other means.  In addition, the agency was working with the C.I.A. and the State Department on a program called Pisces, collecting biometric data on border crossings from a wide range of countries.

And putting it all in context, here is the complete private data architecture which the NSA needs in order to feel complete:

  • Biometric/Biologic data: showing individual's physical traits: face, iris, fingerprints, voice, gait. More examples of this data include:
    • Familial
    • Volitional
    • Individual
    • Sex
    • Height
    • Heat signature
    • Genetic Markers
    • Voiceprint
    • Blood group
    • Language
    • Ritual scarification
    • Recreational drug
    • Medical devices
    • Footprint
    • Hair chemical profile
    • Race
    • Motile
    • Handwriting
    • Typing
    • Gait
    • Limp
  • Biographic: data that documents an individual's life history: name, DOB, address, school, military. More examples of this data include:
    • Core Personal
    • Addresses
    • Educational
    • Employment
    • Judicial
    • Military Service
    • Family
    • Acquired Traits
    • Spouse
    • Children
    • Cohabitants
    • Employees
    • Servants
    • Guests
  • Contextual/Behavioral: data that captures an individual's interactions with the external world: travel, financial behaviors, social network.
    • Financial
    • Public Records
    • Licenses
    • Personal Pattern
    • Commercial Transaction
    • Media Consumption/Production
    • Associates
    • Political Donations
    • Property
    • License Plates
    • Vehicle VINs
    • Tastes/Preferences
    • Accounts records
    • ATM Usage/Transactions
    • Tax Records
    • Credit Ratings

And much more. A full breakdown of the NSA's comprehensive ambition is outlined in this formerly confidential slide:


The full NSA slideshow, courtesy of the NYT:

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COSMOS's picture

Time to MOON your cameras

That means BA (bare your ass to them)

TeamDepends's picture

The day they achieve Rectal Recognition is the day we'll be checking out.

CH1's picture

The Free Shit Army is now owned.

Something for nothing... it's never "different this time."

Oh regional Indian's picture

So who is safe-r?


This is why they want the veil GONE. Strip Islam in the process...

Chupacabra-322's picture

The goal of these Criminals Psycopaths was to build a massive Global data base of individual Psychological profiles, threat assessments & dosiaires of every man, woman & child on the planet to be used for pure Evil purposes / control.

SoilMyselfRotten's picture

Between facial recognition and getting RFID technology more mainstream, US is on track to become the worst police state in the history of the world. There will literally be no place to hide.

Headbanger's picture

It's stupid!

Everybody grow a bear and wear cheap sunglasses with the glass so dark they don't even know your name.

And enroll in lessons from The Ministry of Silly Walks


and here


Gaius Frakkin' Baltar's picture


There shouldn't be a NSA representative available for comment. The PR department of the NSA should be so overwhelmed from outraged citizens that it simple isn't able to function.

zerozulu's picture

when dollar will go down the drain all these projects will follow to the toilet.

omniversling's picture


Not only. Plan is full reference 3D real time avatar of everyone everywhere overlaying Google maps, Google Street, FacRec, all SocMed feeds, RFID/SmartTat biometric transponder, with all of the other data streams mentioned in the article.... search "human surveillance 3d avatar project" and follow the bouncing ball...


RiverRoad's picture

We're the new Soylent Green:  first they rape us, then they eat us.

Peter Pan's picture

So what does the NSA propose to do with respect to Muslim women covered from tip to toe?


NoDebt's picture

Those will all be tagged "John Kerry" by default.

JohnnyBriefcase's picture

Remember back when they said that all they tracked was metadata on phones?


McMolotov's picture

The Stasi collected body odors and stored them in jars. The NSA collect absolutely everything else.

Hell, they probably collect body odors, too, and keep them in some gigantic Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse.

COSMOS's picture

Not surprised if they have Poop interception centers where they can sample our Shit.

BlindMonkey's picture

Thanks. Every time I have a movement I will shout "here's mud in your eye motherfuckers!"

Oldrepublic's picture

actually the CIA has a special section that collects  urine and feces samples of foreign leaders!

TahoeBilly2012's picture

"man up" slaves! Satan just building his little control grid with lotsa world class pussies to help.

BlindMonkey's picture

With this much observable evil in the world you think that? Amazing.

wchild's picture

I agree with you, 100% TB2012

CH1's picture

So what does the NSA propose to do with....

Whatever they can get away with.

And, these days, that's a LOT. Say baaaaah, Muppet!

A Nanny Moose's picture

Perhaps some wisdom lies therein?

Telemakhos's picture

The French response: "Loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l'espace public."  When a surveillance society gains the power to recognize faces, veils must be banned as a "security risk" and "social hindrance."

omniversling's picture

No TD, fart back! With My Pink Wink Anal Bleaching Cream

www.amazon.com/My-Pink-Wink-Cream-Bleach/dp/B005Y0AZXI    My Pink Wink Cream - Anal Bleaching Cream


Alternatives for the other end:

Camouflage from face detection. http://cvdazzle.com/

How to Hide from Machines http://dismagazine.com/dystopia/evolved-lifestyles/8115/anti-surveillanc...

Fashion that will hide you from face-recognition technology http://io9.com/how-fashion-can-be-used-to-thwart-facial-recognition-te-1...


It's cool to be a neo Duran Duran fop Boy George retro sub hetro. Or or full Eighties fool. 


Facebook’s DeepFace Project Nears Human Accuracy In Identifying Faces http://techcrunch.com/2014/03/18/faceook-deepface-facial-recognition/?ut...

Zoomorph's picture

Call me paranoid, but the first thing I did to my laptop was uninstall the camera driver and put ductape over the lens.

Beam Me Up Scotty's picture

Don't forget your cellie.  Every time you feel the need to read ZH on your phone to keep up with the days events, your front camara is staring right at you!!  Its like a mini cyclops in your hand---peering at you while you use your phone.

infinity8's picture

Proud owner of a dumb-phone, here.

RiverRoad's picture

Don't even bother to turn around.  My webcam light came on on my Mac a couple of months ago all by its little self.  Nice.  So I keep a piece of masking tape over it now.

Jumbotron's picture

Every year on their birthday the NSA sends a Happy Birthday card to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and the Cell Phone companies.

max2205's picture

Lets all give NSA a facial

Amish Hacker's picture

Pleeze, William, take your meds!

TeamDepends's picture

Reporter:  Mr. Secretary (chuckles), are you happy with the procedure?

Kerry:  Well, no one will make fun of my long face anymore.  (pandemonious laughter)

A Nanny Moose's picture

Had to erase that Habsburgs Jaw

infinity8's picture

Thanks 'cause I never would have noticed it past the ass.

Is it just me or does he look better like that?

williambanzai7's picture

Just yesterday I was reading the latest on the side effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibiters, the hidden correlation with suicidal behavior and violent crime, the long term neurological side effects and Big Pharma's efforts to cover it all up. Suffice to say, the findings on these matters are not improving.

If you or anyone else here ingests or has a loved one who ingests chemical mood agents, I would urge you to consider the ramifications carefully.

I am sure the NSA can assist...

BlindMonkey's picture

I think this is why so many vets have been killing themselves. If the VA stopped giving that shit away like candy we would have more of them around.

On the other side I am betting they can't wait until a vet (white vet anyway) shoots up something and kills lots of folks.

Peter Pan's picture

Clearly he is one of America's greatest ass-ets.

TeamDepends's picture

Sees no evil, butt reeks of it.