NSA Chief Denies (Intentionally) Spying on Americans’ Faces

Mike Rogers confirms the agency has a facial-recognition program targeting foreigners.

Admiral Michael Rogers, commander of US Cyber Command, director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and chief of the Central Security Service, speaks during the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Cybersecurity Summit in Washington, DC, May 28, 2014.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
June 3, 2014, 6:27 a.m.

The Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency col­lects and ana­lyzes im­ages of people’s faces as part of its vast sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tion, the agency’s dir­ect­or con­firmed Tues­day.

But Adm. Mike Ro­gers in­sisted that the NSA doesn’t in­ten­tion­ally tar­get fa­cial im­ages of Amer­ic­ans.

“We use fa­cial re­cog­ni­tion as a tool to help us un­der­stand these for­eign in­tel­li­gence tar­gets,” Ro­gers said dur­ing an event hos­ted by Bloomberg.

He said the pro­gram does not spy on a “uni­lat­er­al basis against U.S. cit­izens.” But he ac­know­ledged that some Amer­ic­ans’ im­ages are in­ev­it­ably swept up in the col­lec­tion.

“Clearly, in the di­git­al age, we will en­counter U.S. per­sons in the wil­der­ness, if you will,” he said.

He ar­gued that the pro­gram com­plies with strict leg­al lim­it­a­tions, in­clud­ing on the col­lec­tion of data on Amer­ic­ans. 

“In broad terms, we have to stop what we’re do­ing if we come to the real­iz­a­tion that some­body we’re mon­it­or­ing or track­ing has a U.S. con­nec­tion that we were un­aware of,” he said. 

The New York Times, cit­ing doc­u­ments provided by Ed­ward Snowden, first re­por­ted that the NSA har­vests mil­lions of fa­cial im­ages.

Ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments, NSA lead­ers be­lieve they must ex­pand their sur­veil­lance bey­ond text and au­dio.

“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,” the agency wrote in one of the doc­u­ments, The Times re­por­ted.

Ro­gers said the NSA does not have ac­cess to any vast data­bases of Amer­ic­ans’ fa­cial im­ages, spe­cific­ally deny­ing that the agency col­lects pic­tures from state DMV of­fices.

Dur­ing the event, Ro­gers called Snowden “ar­rog­ant,” but said the NSA leak­er is “prob­ably” not work­ing on be­half of a for­eign na­tion, such as Rus­sia.

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