Does NSA Consider Facial Matches “Connections”?

James Risen and Laura Poitras have a new Snowden story on the many ways the NSA collects and matches images.

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.

“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.

One N.S.A. PowerPoint presentation from 2011, for example, displays several photographs of an unidentified man — sometimes bearded, other times clean-shaven — in different settings, along with more than two dozen data points about him. These include whether he was on the Transportation Security Administration no-fly list, his passport and visa status, known associates or suspected terrorist ties, and comments made about him by informants to American intelligence agencies.

You can sort of map out where the NSA is getting its photos from the non-denials Vanee Vines gave NYT. For example, she did not deny that NSA collects images off Facebook. She also did not deny NSA is collecting iris scans.

She added that the N.S.A. 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.

Perhaps most interesting, the story describes the “identity intelligence” analysts who map all these pieces together.

The agency has created teams of “identity intelligence” analysts who work to combine the facial images with other records about individuals to develop comprehensive portraits of intelligence targets.

We’ve know they do this. Here’s how Snowden described it to the EU.

It has been reported that the NSA’s XKeyscore for interacting with the raw signals intercepted by mass surveillance programs allow for the creation of something that is called “fingerprints.”

I’d like to explain what that really means. The answer will be somewhat technical for a parliamentary setting, but these fingerprints can be used to construct a kind of unique signature for any individual or group’s communications which are often comprised of a collection of “selectors” such as email addresses, phone numbers, or user names.

This allows State Security Bureaus to instantly identify the movements and activities of you, your computers, or other devices, your personal Internet accounts, or even key words or other uncommon strings that indicate an individual or group, out of all the communications they intercept in the world are associated with that particular communication. Much like a fingerprint that you would leave on a handle of your door or your steering wheel for your car and so on.

[snip]

This provides a capability for analysts to do things like associate unique identifiers assigned to untargeted individuals via unencrypted commercial advertising networks through cookies or other trackers — common tracking means used by businesses everyday on the Internet — with personal details, such as individuals’ precise identity, personal identity, their geographic location, their political affiliations, their place of work, their computer operating system and other technical details, their sexual orientation, their personal interests, and so on and so forth. There are very few practical limitations to the kind of analysis that can be technically performed in this manner, short of the actual imagination of the analysts themselves.

While the NYT raises a slew of questions (starting with, again, why the NSA was purportedly unable to ID the Tsarnaevs via facial recognition, given that this program was expanded in the wake of the UndieBomb attack).

But I’m particularly interested in whether photo information gets used as part of the government’s correlations process: its chaining of people who know each other. Because, now that the phone dragnet authorizes chaining on “connections” in addition to actual phone calls, the photos on a smart phone would provide really useful ways of chaining people (it’d be easy to map the photo metadata, without having to do facial recognition).

Is part of the NSA’s move to have telecoms do this chaining — which civil liberties NGOs cheered so loudly — an effort to get to the photos we all keep in our cell phones?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. anonymous says:

    Excellent question. Physical location as metadata, surveillance images in public as metadata, publicly available facial images as metadata, run through the most powerful algorithms the NSA/FBI/DHS/DEA can afford, 24/7, correlated with the ‘connections’ inside your mobile computer as correlated by the telecoms and shared through VPN with fusion centers, state and local police as ‘anonymous’ tips.

  2. pdaly says:

    Facebook breathlessly reacts to my logging on from a new computer network. ‘For my account safey’ it barrages me with facial recognition quizzes. I have always assumed it was less about my account safety and more about FB’s data “integrity.”

  3. bloopie2 says:

    We need to start our own database. Every law enforcement officer in the US. Everyone who works for any law enforcement agency in the US – clerical, analyst, management, etc. – all the way up to the top. Include every person who holds criminal power over us – city halls, justice departments, prosecutors, state houses, prison guards, highway patrol, the federal government – everyone. Tie it up with their photographs, phone numbers, email addresses, physical addresses, etc. (to the extent allowed by law – I know there are limits on what you can do with the personal information of a cop, for example).

    Perhaps we can start with NSA employees. Video every car and every pedestrian coming in and out of the NSA offices, for a month (stand on a public sidewalk to do that, it’s legal). Note license plate numbers. Connect those numbers with physical addresses. Gather and store the images of the faces of all the people seen. Publish every minute of the video, on YouTube, and ask viewers to identify the people seen.

    Then buy/make our own license plate readers (that can’t be illegal, can it? It’s just a camera, after all).

    Then start tracking these people.

    Let’s see how they like it.

    • wallace says:

      quote”We need to start our own database. Every law enforcement officer in the US. Everyone who works for any law enforcement agency in the US – clerical, analyst, management, etc. – all the way up to the top.”unquote

      It’s already started. In Connecticut and various other states where collectivist Legislative tyrants , having infringed on the 2nd Amendment, would prefer a government monopoly on violence.

      At least they can’t say they weren’t warned…

      http://sipseystreetirregulars.blogspot.com/2014/02/open-letter-to-legislative-tyrants-of.html

      I have $1k that says a 100 or so heads started to explode in the Connecticut legislature when they saw this…

      http://sipseystreetirregulars.blogspot.com/2014/02/a-sipsey-street-public-service.html

      Good. I hope it scares the shit out of these bastards, knowing full well… 4th Generation warfare starts with these lists. After all, every single person on that list voted for …you got it……. a list of GUN OWNERS.

    • Don Bacon says:

      I like your general approach, not establishing our own database particularly, but the idea of having some counter-strategy because we will NEVER stop the criminal government with all their lawyers working against us. Never.

  4. Don Bacon says:

    The Feds have camera alongside the interstate nearby. They snap photos of faces and license plates and then it’s a piece of cake to set up a recognition file.

  5. wallace says:

    More over, people are starting to pay attention to out of control LEO and FBI psychopaths ..like the FBI agent who pumped 7 hollow point rounds of ammo into Ibragim Todashev ..one .. AARON McFARLAN, who was also sued as an out of control Oakland Ca. cop…..

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/05/13/fbi-shooter-had-stormy-record-officer/7zJ1ha78Z0SpfDey0PBuJJ/story.html

    However, it’s difficult to comprehend the depth of police incompetence, when a SWAT team tosses a FLASHBOMB into a baby’s crib during a 3am raid on a “suspected” drug seller…
    http://www.lewrockwell.com/lrc-blog/a-country-where-police-burn-infants-in-their-cribs/

    The suspect..who wasn’t even there..is now being blamed by the scumbag Sheriff
    for this unconscionable act of stupidity,

    http://reason.com/blog/2014/05/30/sheriff-in-burned-baby-raid-wants-your-p

    And THEN, to find out this same SWAT team murdered an innocent pastor a short time before…..

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/05/30/drug-task-force-that-burned-a-toddler-this-week-also-killed-an-innocent-pastor-in-2009/

    However, names are getting out. Slowly. In the meantime, the sheriff IS known..and people are now inundating this defiant bastard with emails by the thousands…

    Maybe you to would like to verbally spit in this sub-human cockroaches face….

    [email protected]

    All I know is this is the only way we are going to stop these bastards..shame them across the entire planet. Every last one of them.

  6. TomVet says:

    Those are not lawyers, they are actors who play them. They read their lines from scripts the PTB give them. If a real lawyer did what those guys in the OLC did they’d be disbarred in a heartbeat, but these clowns end up as fed judges!

  7. greengiant says:

    Do an experiment. Post two pictures at your fav photo site. In one picture have one face, and in another picture have 8 faces. See how many hits you get.
    The private as well as the IC community think there is profit in identifying and tracking everyone.

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