NSA Spying Gets Even Creepier With Facial Recognition Software

The Department of Homeland Security is developing new technology that would allow it to scan people’s faces and identify them in a crowd. The Biometric Optic Surveillance System (BOSS), has been in development for over two years and the DHS tested it in the fall of 2012. The technology is already making headway in the private sector but the federal government needs to develop it further to scan fast-paced crowd movement.

BOSS could easily have legitimate and practical legal uses to prevent crime. However, given the current environment in which the federal government continuously oversteps its bounds and collects data on innocent Americans, it is imperative that Congress immediately implements substantial regulations and safeguards in order to prevent wide-scale abuse by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

The military initially developed the facial recognition technology to help scan for and uncover potential suicide bombers at polls in places like Afghanistan and Iraq but, as is the norm for military technology, domestic agencies began refining it for use on U.S. soil. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) earmarked BOSS for development at a University of Louisville laboratory in his home state of Kentucky. Nevertheless, scientists estimate that it will be another five years before the DHS deems the technology accurate enough for police department use.

Privacy advocate Ginger McCall, who filed a Freedom of Information Act to reveal documents relating to BOSS’ development, warns that “this technology is always billed as antiterrorism, but then it drifts into other applications. We need a real conversation about whether and how we want this technology to be used and now is the time for that debate.”

McCall’s sensible regulations on how the government can use the technology include limits on whose faces that law enforcement and intelligence agencies can upload onto BOSS. She fears that while the technology could legitimately be used for terrorism watch lists, the federal government could just as easily use it to track everyone’s public movements via a database of people’s driver license photographs. This would not be an unexpected use of the technology based on the Bush and Obama administrations’ virtually limitless collection of phone call records and metadata.

As usual, the private sector is ahead of the game when it comes to implementing the new technology. Even Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who has no problem with satellites photographing private residences (catching people in compromising positions) and collecting information about people’s personal internet connections via black cars, vowed in 2011 that Google would never use facial recognition technology, as even Schmidt thought that it’s too creepy.

Nonetheless, Google doubled back on Schmidt’s promise and came close to including facial recognition software in its high-tech sunglasses in 2013. However, due to privacy concerns from customers, Google agreed not to include the software in the sunglasses until they enact better privacy safeguards.

Facebook already uses facial recognition software to identify people in photos that users upload, suggesting friends for the uploader to tag in the photo. Intel had plans to include the technology in its set top boxes but faced intense user criticism and comparisons to Orwell’s 1984. As in the case of the Google sunglasses, customer complaints are the most likely reason that Intel withdrew face recognition from its set top boxes, even though the company insisted that the reason was because the technology did not work well enough in low-light environments.

There is still time to act before the DHS develops the technology enough for law enforcement uses. With unrestricted use of BOSS, the NSA and other federal agencies could compel Facebook, Google, and other websites and browsers to give them personal user information obtained from private-sector facial recognition software, just as it does in the current iteration of the PRISM program.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that the technology will stay in the U.S. and countless governments would not hesitate to use it at peaceful political rallies, using it to track, harass, and intimidate protesters.

The American public must lobby its lawmakers to immediately enact regulations regarding facial recognition surveillance before the DHS completes its development.  

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Bryant Harris

Bryant Harris is a reporter with Inter Press Service News. He has worked in Muscat, Oman and was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. He graduated from UW-Madison in 2011 with a BA in Middle East Studies.

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