According to a report in The New York Times, the National Security Agency intercepts about 55,000 “facial recognition quality images” per day. The information, which was obtained from Edward Snowden’s leaked documents from the agency, also indicate that the NSA now believes images are as important as written communications in tracking down targets online.
The NSA has its own facial recognition software, according to the report, and has also leaned on commercially available software technology in the past. Of course, with its ongoing DeepFace initiative, Facebook is jumping headfirst into the facial recognition technology game as well. (According to Facebook, their technology is nearing human levels of recognition of facial photos.) According to an NSA spokeswoman, the agency would require court approval to collect imagery of Americans, though if U.S. citizens sent images overseas they could hypothetically be gathered.
“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,” an NSA document from 2010 notes.
As TechCrunch points out, all of this has coincided with the explosion in popularity of the “selfie” photo and picture-taking apps like the Facebook-owned Instagram. With more facial images online than ever, it only makes sense that the government would seek ways to exploit such widely-available user data.