NSA: National Selfies Agency

Following on from last week’s discussion of the way in which selfies are used to exemplify problematic forms of data, this tendency is also evident in a comparison between a news story as reported in Tech Crunch and by the New York Times. Back in May, both reported that the NSA was using images harvested from the web to build facial recognition software: an emerging technology for the identification and tracing of suspected individuals. The contrast between the two reports is interesting.

The New York Times details how documents leaked by Edward Snowden show an NSA emphasis on obtaining data to develop its facial recognition software. Facial images, we are told, are being incorporated into data collection along with other types of information, such as fingerprints. Although the article makes it clear that the focus would be on communications outside of the US, there’s a high likelihood that US citizens could have their image data collected too. The article expresses concerns over privacy issues, not just relating to the data, but also to the facial recognition technology in general, which one source terms as “very invasive”. The story concludes by adding that other projects have sought to locate subjects using satellite images, as well as acquiring biometric data, such as iris scans, from border crossing across a number of countries.

So this is a story about data gathering, and the uses government agencies have for such data, through compiling and cross-referencing across huge databases. This prompts significant concerns for civil liberties, especially considering the inaccuracies in identification the documents noted.

But these issues – of governments engaging in non-democratic practices of monitoring subjects – are obscured within the story as reported by Tech Crunch. Here, the NSA’s practices are reframed as further exemplifying the problem of selfies. The headline sets the tone by stating that “Your Selfie is a Mugshot for the NSA”. Your selfie. This is not a transgression against your civil liberties – rather, you are doing this to yourself.

Both articles quote an NSA document that details an “approach that digitally exploits the clues a target leaves behind in their regular activities on the net to compile biographic and biometric information [that can help] implement precision targeting”. So why are selfies singled out as the ultimate example of this problematic and exploited data trail? The answer lies in the public conception of selfies as problematic. Selfies are so abject, so borderline criminal, that it becomes almost logical to imagine that the NSA would be viewing them. Tech Crunch readers can therefore gain a sense of false security by separating themselves from a devalued photographic practice. It is much easier after all to conceptualise the problem of NSA monitoring in terms of personal responsibility, rather than in terms of state oppression. Selfie-taking again becomes a target for sublimated fears about something else entirely.

Furthermore, presenting selfies as a dangerous folly implicitly shifts the blame away from intelligence agencies, onto the subject, for creating this data in the first place. The article’s emphasis on selfie-blame is evident in a flawed correlation between selfies and passport photos – saying that if the NSA has the former, that’s almost as good as having the latter, which the agency does not have access to. But such images are not interchangeable, as selfies on sites such as Instagram have little useful identification data attached to them. It is not simply pictures that are the problem, but the cross-referencing that can be done with them. There’s no point shaming selfie-takers, again, when blame lies with those who are responsible for devising unorthodox methods of population surveillance.

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