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The NSA Wants Your Selfies

On June 2nd, Apple announced it would be updating it’s iMessage feature to allow users to send self-destructing videos, pictures, and audio messages, a clear attempt to share the limelight media-sharing app Snapchat has continued to bask in. Does this bode bad news for Snapchat? Maybe. But for those with concerns about how much and what customer information companies like Apple give out — and who they’re giving it to — an influx in photo and video sharing through a feature as widely used as iMessage may be something to keep an eye on.

 Not-So-Private Messaging

Apple made a statement in 2013 in response to growing concern over private companies handing over customer information for PRISM, the NSA’s digital surveillance program. In the statement Apple showed that it had indeed received many requests for customer data from the federal government, but insisted that these cases were related to criminal investigations and matters of national security. Apple’s transparency was appreciated, and a recent legal statement by the company has assured customers it cannot intercept iMessages, supposedly encrypted on both ends.This is particularly reassuring after Snapchat was taken to task by the Federal Trade Commission when it was revealed that content sent between users on the app didn’t simply “disappear” and that this data could still be accessed.

The new iMessage features could have similar loopholes, but there is no loophole if a law simply doesn’t exist in the first place. As it stands, no U.S. laws protecting facial images exist, making the brave new world of facial recognition technology a bit ambiguous. Documents released by the now infamous Edward Snowden suggested that the NSA has been secretly collecting millions of faces in the form of pictures and videos via email, social media, text messages, and other media content. While the NSA may have to court companies like Apple for access to their customers’ snapchats, little legally stops them from using facial recognition technology on the web or other surveillance efforts.

Even if Apple holds up it’s promise of limiting released data and thoroughly investigating government requests, it may not matter much. In late 2013, information came to light that suggested the NSA was able to access data from companies like Google and Yahoo without their explicit permission — or awareness. Other companies, like Verizon, have claimed they don’t have much freedom to say no when the federal government requests their data, nor can they share much about the process with the public. It’s been speculated whether statements of transparency like Apple’s are simply PR stunts, made to keep companies’ appearances while also making it appear that the NSA functions exclusively within the full rule of the law.

How Facial Images Could Be Used

The technology, while advanced in many ways, is still subject to errors and limitations. A PowerPoint from 2011 leaked in Snowden’s documents showed an example in which the software ran a search for a young man with facial hair; of the 42 results, several were false matches, including one person who was decades older than the target. Even more egregious, a search for Osama bin Laden using the same program turned up four photos of bearded men with only slight resemblances to bin Laden among the search results. Though facial recognition technology has obvious benefits for criminal investigations and national security, this kind of error is concerning in the face of rampant Islamophobia and xenophobia that has plagued the U.S. for years.

Facial recognition technology also has proposed uses in the commercial world. Features like protecting mobile devices such as phones and tablets with facial recognition software have been proposed, which could combine with or take the place of current thumbprint recognition technologies to make personal devices more secure. On the slightly Orwellian side, shopping centers have been experimenting with facial recognition technology in billboards that would show shoppers ads tailored to their apparent gender and age range. Some retailers have also reportedly been testing facial recognition technology installed in the eyes of mannequins (yes, really) to covertly track and profile customers in their stores. Facial recognition searches may one day become as common as searching for info on Google.

But whether for government or commercial purposes, it will be imperative to adjust privacy laws to match the advances of technology.