NSA collects biometric data, prompting creative countermeasures

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Along with investigative journalist Laura Pointras, James Risen from the New York Times (who is facing prosecution for protecting the confidentiality of his sources in the face of yet another whistleblower investigation) produced a report this Sunday based on the latest among the Snowden revelations. In particular, Poitras & Risen reveal that the NSA is collecting and maintaining a vast image database of faces for use with facial recognition software. As they explain in their report:

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. “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.

Facial recognition software deployed for surveillance and intelligence gathering is not merely constitutionally questionable, it is also really, really creepy. Your face is not “data,” it is you. More than any personal email or racy text message, your biometric information is the most personal data you possess. By rendering faces into ones and zeros, the NSA objectifies and commodifies the body itself.

The ability to render bodies into information and then sweep the world for that information using a nearly unimaginable network of CCTV cameras and internet traffic has civil liberties activists understandably alarmed. As explained by BORDC Advisor Naomi Wolf:

According to Homeland Security Newswire, billions of dollars are being invested in the development and manufacture of various biometric technologies capable of detecting and identifying anyone, anywhere in the world – via iris-scanning systems, already in use; foot-scanning technology (really); voice pattern ID software, and so on. What is very obvious is that this technology will not be applied merely to people under arrest, or to people under surveillance in accordance with the fourth amendment (suspects in possible terrorist plots or other potential crimes, after law enforcement agents have already obtained a warrant from a magistrate). No, the “targets” here are me and you: everyone, all of the time. In the name of “national security”, the capacity is being built to identify, track and document any citizen constantly and continuously.

Facial recognition software can be deployed passively and perpetually so that the average person never knows when their face is checked against a database. On the one hand, such software could be a benign, useful technology in a society that does not rely on fear and control to pursue justice. Given the intelligence agencies’ unfortunate history of abuses, however, facial recognition poses dystopian risks. It can be difficult to reign in governmental use of facial recognition software because of the pervasive private use of the technology, such as with Facebook or Google. Private use puts pressure on the government to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to emerging technology. Some feminist activists, however, have proposed disguising their faces in chic, fashion forward way to thwart the recognition algorithms. Adam Harvey describes the tactic this way:

My project, CV Dazzle, explores how fashion can be used as camouflage from face-detection technology, the first step in automated face recognition. The name is derived from a type of World War I naval camouflage called Dazzle, which used cubist-inspired designs to break apart the visual continuity of a battleship and conceal its orientation and size. Likewise, CV Dazzle uses avant-garde hairstyling and makeup designs to break apart the continuity of a face. Since facial-recognition algorithms rely on the identification and spatial relationship of key facial features, like symmetry and tonal contours, one can block detection by creating an “anti-face.”

In the photo above, Poet Marcus Lund demonstrates makeup designed to foil facial recognition algorithms. Similarly, Chicago artist Leo Selvaggio has designed novel face-changing masks as another means of “protecting the public from surveillance and creating a safe space to explore our digital identities.” As individuals, we can only do so much to protect ourselves from mass surveillance. As communities, we can do much more. For instance, adopting encryption is one way that individuals may aim to insulate themselves individually, but only more widespread use of encryption can enable the “herd immunity” necessary to reset the net. The plain reality of facial recognition-based surveillance, however, is that no single policy effort will stop it and no single oversight mechanism can keep it in check. In order to neutralize the types of privacy threats posed by facial recognition surveillance, national security policy itself must be transformed. Activists cannot regulate their way out of the surveillance state. In order to protect ourselves, we must challenge each other not only to make better policy, but also to be a better society. How does your activism work to transform the country for the better?