Move over, metadata and voice-call collection: The NSA is also harvesting images and trying to identify them with facial-recognition software, the New York Times reports. According to 2011 agency documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the NSA grabs "millions of images per day"—about 55,000 of which are good enough for facial recognition. The agency doesn't take them from state databases of US passport photos or driver's licenses, said an NSA spokeswoman, but she wouldn't say whether social media sites or State Department databases were fair game.
Law enforcement agencies already create facial-imagery databases—relying on Facebook and driver's-license photos, for example—and the FBI is combining fingerprints with facial imagery and other data. But the NSA can match its images with vast troves of information it has already intercepted. So, is this legal? The NSA would need court approval to snatch images of Americans, the Times notes, unless they contacted someone overseas. The technology isn't foolproof, and gives its share of false positives, but civil-liberties advocates are still concerned. The facial-recognition debate has cropped up before—like in 2011, when Facebook introduced automatic tagging, TechCrunch notes, and later turned off a tagging feature in Europe after an investigation by Irish authorities, reports PC World. (Read more NSA stories.)