NSA Use of Facial Recognition Stays Within Legal Boundary

The U.S. National Security Agency complies with legal restrictions when it comes to using facial-recognition technology on citizens, according to the agency’s new director.

“We do not do this in some unilateral basis against U.S. citizens,” Admiral Michael S. Rogers said at a Bloomberg Government cybersecurity conference in Washington today. “We have very specific restrictions when it comes to U.S. persons.”

The NSA will encounter the communications and images of Americans while pursuing its mission of collecting foreign intelligence and trying to prevent terrorism, Rogers said. In those cases, it can’t collect intelligence on U.S. citizens unless it meets the appropriate legal constraints, said Rogers, who became NSA director in April.

Rogers inherits an agency grappling with a domestic and international backlash over spying exposed in documents leaked by former agency contractor Edward Snowden. Congress is considering measures to rein in some of NSA’s data collection. In a wide-ranging interview, Rogers said he wants to change the public focus on what the agency does to how the agency exists to protect the country and the constraints it works under.

The New York Times reported June 1 that the NSA was collecting millions of online images and using facial-recognition technology to track suspected terrorists, citing documents leaked by Snowden. Facial-recognition technology uses software to match an image of a person against existing databases, such as police records.

Legal Justification

The NSA doesn’t access motor vehicle or passport databases to examine images of U.S. citizens, Rogers said.

“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,” Rogers said about using the technology. “We have to assess the situation and if we think there is a legal basis for this and we have to get the legal authority or justification.”

In trying to shift terms of discussion, U.S. agencies, corporations and citizens need to come to terms with how data is collected and used, Rogers said.

“The idea that you can be totally anonymous in the digital age is increasingly difficult to execute,” he said. “We have framed this debate much too narrow from my perspective. This is much bigger than the National Security Agency.”

Rogers said Snowden’s actions were illegal because he stole sensitive documents. However, he said Snowden was “probably not” acting on behalf of others, such as the Russian government.

Senate Bill

The Senate’s intelligence committee will hold a hearing next week to help develop legislation curbing the NSA’s collection of bulk telephone records and other electronic data, said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel.

“We do need to make some changes in the way we handle our monitoring of individuals,” Chambliss said at today’s conference. “It is a very delicate balance, a very delicate line we have to walk.”

The House went “a little too far” in a bill it passed in May making changes to the NSA’s program of collecting bulk phone records, which could slow down counterterrorism investigations, Chambliss said. The House bill would require the government to get approval from a secret court in order to direct carriers to search their records.

Chambliss called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to allow an open debate on the chamber’s floor.

Cybersecurity Bill

Chambliss said he also is close to reaching an agreement with Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, on another bill related to cybersecurity.

The bill would give companies legal protections for sharing information about hacking threats with the government, as long as they did so through a new portal that would have to be created, Chambliss said.

“There’s a real possibility” the Senate will pass the bill this year, Chambliss said. The House has already passed similar legislation.

(Updates with Chambliss starting in the 12th paragraph.)
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