Surveillance companies are harvesting Facebook photos to create a huge facial recognition database: Report

A secretive surveillance company founded by an ex-Israeli intelligence officer has been building a database of Facebook photos for over five years.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg answered all the questions that were posed to him by the Senate and House committees over ten hours. He also promised a lot of things. But there were no questions asked about the surveillance companies which are harvesting Facebook data according to a new report.

Representational image. Reuters.

Representational image. Reuters.

A secretive surveillance company founded by an ex-Israeli intelligence officer has been building a database of Facebook photos for over five years. According to Forbes, who broke the story, this company is building a massive facial recognition database by harvesting photos containing faces from social networks such as Facebook, YouTube and many other websites.

The report states that a facial recognition service called Face-Int is owned by Israeli vendor Verint, which acquired another surveillance company called Terrogence in 2017. Both Terrogence and Verint are suppliers of bleeding edge tech to US government as well as the NSA, the US Navy and many other intelligence agencies.

Terrogence stated on its website that it harvested data from online sources such as YouTube, Facebook as well as open and closed forums from around the world. The company also scoured through over 35,000 videos and photos of terrorist camps, motivational clips and terror attacks to help identify faces. It helps intelligence agencies and law enforcement with combating terrorism online. Terrogence has harvested a lot of data from Facebook, just like Cambridge Analytica claims the Forbes report.

According to Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), if the facial recognition data has been shared with the US government then it amounts to threatening free speech and the privacy rights of online users. She said that since facial recognition technology is not 100 percent accurate, it could very well lead to misidentification of people as terrorists or criminals.

The report gives no clarification as to how exactly Face-Int acquires facial data but says it's similar to the project that was run by NSA as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. According to that, the intelligence agency had gathered 55,000 facial recognition quality images online.

Facebook does use facial recognition techniques using computer vision, to help you with tagging friends, or notify you if your face comes up in some random photograph without your knowledge. According to Facebook, if Terrogence indeed used Facebook facial data then that is in violation of its policies, which prohibits the use of such data from Facebook to be used for surveillance purposes. A Facebook spokesperson said that it hadn't come across any apps operated by Terrogence.

The fear that the report expresses is that apart from feeding government and intelligence agencies with facial data, Terrogence's operations may also enable private individuals to be put on blacklists without being given any explanations.

"A lot of those problems could intensify if you have a bunch of private quasi-vigilantes making their own blacklists of all kinds," said Jay Stanley, a senior political analyst at the Americal Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This is particularly alarming because Verint recently launched a facial recognition product called FaceDetect which promised to identify individuals regardless of any facial obstructions, suspect ageing, disguises and helps operators immediately add suspects to watch-lists.

While Facebook has promised that it is taking a lot of steps to ensure user photos stay protected, ACLU and other privacy advocacy groups want to see more.

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