The NSA Collects Facial Images From Emails, Texts, And All Of The Other Communications It Snags

According to the latest batch of Edward Snowden leaks, the National Security Agency collects millions of images of people every day from the communications it intercepts, including pictures contained in emails, text messages, video conferencing and social media. The images of faces — of which 55,000 are collected every day — are used in conjunction with Tundra Freeze, the NSA’s in-house facial recognition software. It’s unclear how many images the agency has collected in total.

“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,” the NSA wrote in a 2010 document obtained by the New York Times.

It was previously reported that GCHQ, England’s NSA equivalent, worked with the NSA to capture images from private webcam chats. But that program — codenamed Optic Nerve — only affected British citizens, and only monitored webcam communications. This effort is much more wide-ranging: In addition to collecting images from private communications between citizens, the NSA also culls images from national identity card databases in other countries. The documents show that the agency attempted to access such databases in Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, though it’s unclear whether or not it was successful.

Two would-be terrorists compelled the agency to step up its facial recognition efforts, according to the documents: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a bomb hidden in his underwear on a Detroit-bound flight in 2009, and Faisal Shahzad, who unsuccessfully attempted to detonate a car bomb in Time Squares in 2010.