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US intel agencies want to scan people’s faces with drones from long distances

An MQ-9 Reaper at Creech Air Force Base, NV., June 25, 2015. (Senior Airman Cory D. Payne/U.S. Air Force)
February 05, 2021

U.S. intelligence agencies are requesting proposals for technology to identify people through face and gait recognition from a distance, including the ability for drones to track people from above and through weather interference.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) published a request for proposals (RPF) in December for its Biometric Recognition and Identification at Altitude and Range (BRIAR) program. Proposals are due by Feb. 24.

IARPA said the BRIAR program “aims to develop software algorithm-based systems capable of performing whole-body (WB) biometric identification at long-range and from elevated platforms. Many Intelligence Community (IC) and Department of Defense (DoD) agencies require the ability to identify or recognize individuals under challenging scenarios, such as at long-range (e.g., 300+ meters), through atmospheric turbulence, or from elevated and/or aerial sensor platforms (e.g., ≥20° sensor view angle from watch towers or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).”

IARPA is a branch of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which oversees intelligence gathering for a range of U.S. intelligence agencies. Intelligence community members include foreign and military members, as well as domestic intelligence members like the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

BRIAR program documents detail a range of applications for the new technology, such as military force protection, as well as potentially domestic uses such as counterterrorism, protection of critical infrastructure facilities and border security.

An additional program description said the project would entail using biometric identification methods like facial recognition and gait recognition — the method of reliably identifying a person by their stride.

The technology and cybersecurity publication Nextgov reported the program will include other “anthropometric classifications” like measuring a person’s height and gender to improve detection capabilities.

“Expanding the range of conditions in which accurate and reliable biometric-based identification could be performed would greatly improve the number of addressable missions, types of platforms and sensors from which biometrics can be reliably used, and quality of outcomes and decisions,” IARPA said of its request for proposals.

While facial recognition has “increasingly become the biometric modality best suited for [intelligence community] and DOD missions Program” officials have said “there remain challenges” for the technology, “in particular for diverse face detection, verification and identification when dealing with low-resolution or noisy imagery.”

Briefing materials for the project also state one aim is to account for racial diversity in its surveillance, being able to accurately detect people “across diverse demographics.”