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Your Face, Their Algorithm: NSA facial recognition

“You are being watched… The government has a secret system, which spies on you every hour of every day.”

-Opening credits, Person Of Interest


Yesterday marked the end of the first year of the Edward Snowden revelations about the horrifying, beyond-the-ravings-of-the-worst-tin-hat-wearing-paranoid extent of American high-tech surveillance, particularly by the National Security Agency. The latest release tells of the extent to which the NSA is researching facial recognition – specifically, the Identity Intelligence project, which harvests millions of pictures of faces online in order to provide data to train their facial recognition algorithms.

In one of the more striking cases of fact and fiction intertwining, this scenario could have been taken wholesale from the CBS TV show, Person Of Interest. Created by Jonathan Nolan a couple of years before the Snowden revelations, the show initially tells of the efforts of the reclusive designer of The Machine (an artificial intelligence computer bought by the government for post-9/11 surveillance, deliberately restricted by its creator to only provide the social security numbers of those about to be involved in violent crime) to aid those who are deemed by The Machine ‘irrelevant’ to national security but still endangered.

Effectively splitting the concept of Batman between two people (the Inventor/Billionaire, portrayed by Lost’s Michael Emerson and The Warrior, in this case an ex-CIA wetworks specialist needing a new, less bloody purpose, played by Jim Caviezel), it brought a clever very-near-future science fictional edge to the idea of the vigilante hero. The show rapidly evolved – not unlike The Machine itself – from an entertaining weekly action/procedural show to one of the best examinations of the effect AI may have on humanity ever shown and a sly commentary on the modern surveillance state.

The Snowden revelations broke during the writing of the second season of the show, and influenced the series considerably. For their Season 3 Comic-Con presentation last year, the show gave away key fobs with the image pictured at right on them.

Nolan and fellow showrunner Greg Plageman have often spoken in interviews about how little fiction their technology actually has – Nolan in particular has often talked about how Google and other firms have spent billions on researching Artificial General Intelligence, whose algorithms can be put to many uses, both fair and foul. (One such interview is here – NB some spoilers for the series.)

Season 3 ended last month with a deepening of the government’s use of AI to detect possible terrorists, plunging headlong into a dystopian world where police and the military locate, detain and even kill those whose metadata is deemed Relevant by an unseen computer algorithm. And frankly, the show looks less and less like science fiction as it goes on.

In commemoration of the Snowden anniversary, a world-wide group of activists established the Reset The Net initiative, offering people free and open-source tools to better protect their identity. I use these tools – so should you.

And, as for facial recognition? Here the options are more limited – especially in the wake of anti-mask legislation which has appeared in several countries (restricting the rights of everyone from devout Muslim women to V-For-Vendetta-mask wearing Anonymous protesters). Possibilities include the CV Dazzle technique of using a combination of asymmetrical make-up and hairstyles to confuse the algorithms that detect faces, and these nifty Infrared LED caps which blind CCTV cameras. And, of course, the awareness that we are watched… the modern pantechnicon surrounds us, and it matters that we remember to look back. Though always, to remember the risks.


Person of Interest returns to TV in September. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

  1. Remember the Risks
    Thanks for bringing the Peter Watts border guard story to attention. Yet another example of overwrought policing and growing Big Brother police state. Disgusting how something as simple as the freedom to question rather than obediently comply – something so natural and instinctual to hour human nature – is now illegal. And how the border guards falsifying the record with the disproven “choking” is inconsequential and apparently unpunished. As an American I cringe at the path our laws and leaders are taking us – seems no difference between left and right – mere pawns of the same forces at work to undermine our freedoms. This type of police brutality is becoming far too common – Los Angeles Sheriffs being prosecuted for falsifying records and brutality in Los Angeles prisons just one similar recent example. The infamous “Stanford Prison Experiment” illustrates perfectly the risks of giving policing powers to even the best of us, without the proper counter-balances and protections, which of late seem to be diminishing at far too rapid a rate. Scary…

  2. the panopticon
    Related news-links and snippets.
    Sorry about the (apparently unresolvable) html-coding issues.

    • No worries: NSA chief says facial recognition program is totally legal.

      The new head of the National Security Agency, Admiral Michael S. Rogers, said, ‘We do not do this in some unilateral basis against US citizens. We have very specific restrictions when it comes to US persons.’

      Rogers didn’t say what those restrictions are.

    • Facial recognition: What the NSA can (and can’t) mine from intercepted photos.
    • Facebook says its audio identification function ‘is not always listening.’

      Audio-recognition is only listening when typing a status and raw audio never leaves the phone.

    • How the NSA could bug your powered-off iPhone, and how to stop them.
    • Vodafone reveals existence of secret wires that allow state surveillance.

      Vodafone, one of the world’s largest mobile phone groups, has revealed the existence of secret wires that allow government agencies to listen to all conversations on its networks, saying they are widely used in some of the 29 countries in which it operates in Europe and beyond.

      The company has broken its silence on government surveillance in order to push back against the increasingly widespread use of phone and broadband networks to spy on citizens, and will publish its first Law Enforcement Disclosure Report on Friday. At 40,000 words, it is the most comprehensive survey yet of how governments monitor the conversations and whereabouts of their people.

      The company said wires had been connected directly to its network and those of other telecoms groups, allowing agencies to listen to or record live conversations and, in certain cases, track the whereabouts of a customer. Privacy campaigners said the revelations were a ‘nightmare scenario’ that confirmed their worst fears on the extent of snooping.

    • Extent of mobile snooping exposed as Vodaphone reveals government sought access to millions of Indians’ data.
    • Deutsche Telekom to follow Vodafone in revealing surveillance.
    • Widespread electronic surveillance by US police is happening in total secrecy.
    • Life sentences for serious cyberattacks are proposed in Queen’s speech.

      Any cyberattackers who cause ‘loss of life, serious injury or damage to national security’ could face full sentence.

    • Britain’s first secret trial: this way lies trouble.

      Two men, known only as AB and CD, have been charged with terrorism; journalists were forbidden from disclosing even this simple fact until newspapers overturned a gagging order. But for the first time in centuries – and in a direct challenge to the Magna Carta of 1215 – the entire trial will be held in secrecy.

      If we allow hard-won freedoms to be discarded without a fight, what is to stop the powerful coming for other rights?

    • US cybercrime laws are being used to target security researchers.

      Security researchers say they have been threatened with indictment for their work investigating internet vulnerabilities. Because…

    • The NSA and GCHQ have spent 13 years, and billions of dollars, creating internet vulnerabilities.

      The agencies, the [Snowden] documents reveal, have adopted a battery of methods in their systematic and ongoing assault on what they see as one of the biggest threats to their ability to access huge swathes of internet traffic – ‘the use of ubiquitous encryption across the internet.’

    • Heartbleed Redux: Another gaping wound in web encryption uncovered.

      OpenSSL Foundation warned users to update their SSL yet again, this time to fix a previously unknown but more than decade-old bug in the software that allows any network eavesdropper to strip away its encryption.

    • Snowden showed us just how big the panopticon really was. Now it’s up to us.

      ‘Collect it all’ because ‘If a national security threat could come from anyone, it’s necessary to track everyone.’

      Though the ‘collect it all’ approach may have been motivated chiefly by the desire to identify and anticipate terrorists, wholesale collection capabilities will clearly not remain confined to that purpose once they have been created. An astonishing program known as Somalget, for instance, reportedly records nearly every cell phone call in … the Bahamas. The rationale for this mindboggling universal wiretap? Not to catch beachcombing jihadis, but to aid in the war on drugs.

      One of the most disturbing manifestations of the imperative to control infrastructure is the system known as Turbine, an industrial scale delivery system for targeted exploitation that now appears to live right on the internet backbone itself. Scanning the vast stream of Internet traffic, a suspicious user’s web browsing session can be automatically hijacked to install malware that allows the NSA to log every action a user takes on their device, or even activate cameras and microphones, transforming smartphones and laptops into remotely operated bugs on a massive scale.

    • Reset the Net says, ‘Wherever you are, whatever you do, there are concrete ways to win huge victories for privacy, right now.’
    • Snowden adds, ‘Don’t ask for your privacy. Take it back.’
    • John Oliver asks trolls to fight internet ‘fast lanes’ ‘cable company f*ckery’ — and thousands of viewers break the FCC website’s comment page.
    • Video: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Net Neutrality.
    • A government ruled for net neutrality. Too bad it wasn’t your government.

      In the developing world, mobile is the internet. Here’s what happens when companies take advantage of that. (Made me wonder if the NSA wants to get rid of net neutrality so they can herd more internet users toward their co-opted service providers.)

    • Why the US needs to rethink whistleblower rules.

      Instead [of rethinking], the Obama administration seems intent on turning the screws harder on any insider who might talk to the public without authorization. A new directive reportedly bars intelligence employees from unauthorized discussion with the media of even unclassified information so long as it is “related” to intelligence. In other words, you could now in theory be punished for helping a reporter to understand intelligence policies, even if they aren’t secret.

      Yet another policy forbids government insiders from even referring publicly to leaked documents or media reports about them – information pretty much everyone else in the world can talk about.

    • The CIA joined Facebook and Twitter today.
    • Antisocial networks: .

      New apps and sites let users keep a distance and stop technology intruding into their lives.

    • Former TSA agent storms Atlanta courthouse armed with rifles, homemade bombs and smoke grenades and shoots deputy before he is killed by officers.
    1. The tragedy of all of this –
      The tragedy of all of this – no amount of government oversight or legal reversal will guarantee that intelligence service computer spying in ever more clever forms will not be forever ubiquitous. Post Snowden no one will ever again be confident of internet anonymity – it’s permanently gone – and that’s the point – no need to censor the net. The citizenry by and large now censors itself – just as in China.

      “I Sold Out To China”

      The only “workaround” available to us now is to just give the spymasters the old fungoo and keep on speaking our mind freely on the net and passing it around i.e. perpetrate a newly emboldened and de-reticinted populace. You have to feel for corporations and private companies though – they will never again be confident that business can be transacted in private. It’s a huge blow to capitalism.

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