NSA fear raises concerns over DHS facial recognition technology

The U.S. government's effort to develop video surveillance technology capable of spotting fugitives or suspected terrorists needs to be wrapped in a privacy framework that prevents the data-gathering blunders of the National Security Agency, civil rights advocates say.

The system that combines computers, video cameras and facial recognition software was tested last year in a crowd-scanning project called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS), The New York Times reports. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) test found that BOSS was too slow and unreliable, and several years of work is likely needed.

Despite not being ready for prime time, BOSS worries privacy advocates because the related DHS documents given to The Times by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) do not address protecting the privacy of innocent Americans.

"We didn't see any mention of privacy protection at all," Julia Horwitz, open government coordinator for EPIC, told CSOonline on Thursday.

Unless the technology is built with civil rights protection as a specification, then the government may not avoid the privacy violations of the NSA, privacy advocates argue.

A secret court opinion declassified Wednesday by the Obama administration found that the spy agency's massive collection of Internet data had violated the Constitution for several years.Ã'Â

[Also see: Latest NSA revelations could help pending lawsuits |Ã'Â Groklaw shutdown shows 'chilling effect' of NSA surveillanceÃ'Â |Ã'Â Why we can't stop malicious insidersÃ'Â |Ã'Â NSA revelations a mixed bag for private cloudsÃ'Â |Ã'Â Cloud market destined to change following NSA leaksÃ'Â |Ã'Â U.S. openness, restraint could lessen fallout from NSA surveillanceÃ'Â |Ã'Â Ã'Â NSA snooping bolsters opponents of U.S. Internet control]

"Strong individual data protections and privacy protections don't have to be in opposition to progress [in technology]," Horwitz said. "They can blend."

A lot is not known about the technology that would be used in BOSS. One area of concern for advocates is the database underlying the system. The surveillance cameras would scan crowds for faces matching the stored images of people on a watch-list.

However, EPIC is not convinced that the database would be limited to a specific list of people. "Based on the documents that we received, that's an educated guess or a speculation and not a certainty that's what DHS intends to do," Horwitz said.

Debate on civil rights protections in the NSA's search for terrorists has been hampered by the national security mission of the agency, which classifies all its work as top secret. At least three major lawsuits, including one by EPIC, have been filed against the NSA, arguing some details of its surveillance program are kept secret needlessly.

"I would hope that in any system that DHS is setting up that they will have greater transparency about how the system operates," said Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has a lawsuit pending against the NSA for withholding information

Public disclosure of BOSS' capabilities and its collection and handling of stored data is important for Congress and Americans to have now, so privacy safeguards can be established before the fast-developing technology is used, experts say.

Jody Westby, chairwoman for the American Bar Association's Privacy and Computer Crime Committee, said,"It's the legal framework that's lagging behind."Ã'Â

The Federal Trade Commission's Fair Information Practice Principles could serve as a starting point for BOSS. While the guidelines are meant to protect consumer information from being abused by companies, there are several items that could serve a broader purpose, critics say.

Examples include giving people the right to access images and other information kept on them, so they can argue for its removal if they are innocent of any wrongdoing. In addition, data no longer useful should be purged, and mechanisms for guaranteeing accuracy should be in place, privacy advocates say.

Finally, an oversight body with authority over the use of the system should be in place to ensure established rules and restrictions are followed.

Read more about data privacy in CSOonline's Data Privacy section.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags DHSapplicationsNSA spyingfacial recognitionsoftwareElectronic Privacy Information Centerdata protectionData Protection | Data Privacy

More about Electronic Frontier FoundationElectronic Privacy Information CenterFederal Trade CommissionNational Security AgencyNSA

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Antone Gonsalves

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place