biometric surveillance

It’s Not Just The NSA – Facial Recognition Is Gaining Traction Everywhere

Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

The NSA is harvesting millions upon million of images for an extensive facial recognition program. But they aren’t the only ones using biometric surveillance technology.

We know a lot about the NSA’s surveillance program already, thanks to whistleblower and expatriate Edward Snowden.

On May 31, the contents of more top-secret documents, dated to 2011, revealed that it’s not only our phones and emails being watched carefully – but our faces. The age of biometric surveillance is quite literally at hand.

Through the many communications the NSA intercepts, including emails, text messages, social media, and video chats, the agency reportedly scrapes millions of images a day, many of which are “facial recognition quality,” used to fill a database to match potential terrorists.

As is the case for other surveilled channels like phone and email, the collection of American images would technically require court order. But as always, the capability is there, as well as the possibility of innocent folks’ faces being scooped by accident.

Biometric surveillance and identification

Though this particular aspect of NSA strategy had not been disclosed before, it is hardly a surprise considering technology’s growth in past years. This process of turning biological characteristics into data is known as biometrics, and includes fingerprint identification and iris scans.

The first automated facial recognition system was developed in the 1960’s, since which time it has become increasingly advanced, relying on complex algorithms and matching processes to work.

But it’s not just the NSA:

  • Facebook uses it with almost 98% accuracy after acquiring biometrics company (Users can opt out.)

  • The FBI is planning to use it as a core component of their controversial Next Generation Identification (NGI) program, which catalogs both criminal and noncriminal faces. Their goal is to have 52 million images stored by 2015.

  • The Department of Homeland Security tested it in a 3D crowd-scanning project called Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS).

  • 37 states use it on all state drivers licences, data which they hand over to law enforcement.

  • Hotels use it to recognize returning customers.

  • Advertisers have used it to alter billboard messages based on the gender of passersby, and to collect customer data from the camera-eyes of store mannequins.

  • Mobile companies are using it for you to unlock your phone with your face-print.

  • Other companies are using it to develop pay-by-face “millenial ATMs.”


Legal boundaries for how the technology is used have not yet been set, which is one reason biometric surveillance is making people nervous: the law is lagging behind while facial recognition bounds forward, unbridled.

And it’s not like you can hide your face in the same way you can your personal property.

While no one wants policy to cripple thriving technology, the potential of such uncontrolled data inspires fear, with one article in Newsweek imagining the possibility of facial recognition technology attached to surveillance cameras monitoring everyone, everywhere.

Some, like artist Zach Blas, won’t succumb to biometric surveillance so easily – his project “Facial Weaponization Suite” protests it by creating bulbous neon masks composed of aggregated facial data, which serves to disguise wearers and make a political statement.

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.10.53 PM
Screenshot from Zach Blas’ Facial Weaponization video.

But despite such acts of resistance, others, like IBM’s program leader Peter Waggett, believe that fighting the inevitability of biometric surveillance is fighting the wrong battle – and that at this point, it’s come too far to be stopped.

Jennifer Markert