Those who use facial recognition technology to unlock their smartphones may have found themselves recently unable to do so, the phone’s technology rendered useless when the cameras are no longer able to ‘see’ the faces of their owners behind now-ubiquitous face masks. Ever since facial recognition technology came into use in public spaces, privacy activists have been formulating tactics to avert its gaze. However, their methods have spanned far beyond the use of simple socially (or legally) mandatory face masks, ranging from t-shirts printed with celebrities’ faces (the delightfully named ‘Glamouflage’ by Simone C. Niquille) to a crowd-funded prosthetic mask reproducing the face of Leo Selvaggio, who has, in an unusual but noble gesture, sacrificed his own facial identity to offer privacy to others. A ‘wearable projector’ by Jing Cai Liu is also available, which casts shifting and ghostly images of strangers’ faces onto the wearer’s own.
Not all designs are so uncanny. Isao Echizen’s scientific goggles studded with LEDs would look at home on the shelves of neon-spattered ravewear emporium Cyberdog. The CHBL Jammer Coat, designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au, is embedded with ‘metallized fabrics’ to ‘block radio waves’. It is architecturally beautiful with undulating quilted segments covered in a swelling sea of black dots “reminiscent of Yayoi Kusama”, ostensibly to confuse cameras. Some techniques, including ‘CV Dazzle’, are so appealing that the possibility of avoiding detection could be demoted to a secondary part of their appeal. Artist Adam Harvey designed ‘CV Dazzle’ a decade ago, using a combination of colourful hair extensions, graphic makeup, accessories and gems to ‘dazzle’ the (now largely defunct) Viola-Jones face detection algorithm.
The reasons to obscure one’s face are many and ever-increasing as facial recognition technology is harnessed by powers unknown. According to Larry Anderson, editor of SourceSecurity.com, “algorithms can […] identify traits such as ‘calm’ or ‘kind’”, as well as demographics, and use this information for marketing purposes – he’s not clear to what extent these practices are in use. Away from the private sector, governments around the world use facial recognition for law enforcement. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong’s government banned face masks after protestors wore them in an attempt to avoid identification and persecution. Following the death of George Floyd, encrypted messaging service Signal distributed ‘anti-facial recognition masks’ to protestors for the same reasons. In addition to government surveillance, individuals are able to harness facial recognition software for their own means. In March, a writer for The New Yorker met with Kate Bertash of the Digital Defense Fund who reported that anti-abortion activists were photographing those who entered clinics in a possible attempt to track down their home addresses.
The paradoxical effect of many wearable anti-identification systems is that they draw much more human attention to the wearer. Chloe Malle experimented with ‘CV Dazzle’ in a piece for Garage magazine and found that passers-by “swivelled en masse to look and chuckle,” and one woman, horrified, ushered her daughter away from the writer. Now that face masks are omnipresent, the movement for facial concealment may be given the space to flourish and become mainstream. It appears, however, that new designs will continue to be necessitated, as technologies like ‘thermal facial recognition’ are already beginning to be rolled out—and those in opposition to it will be pushed towards yet more creative and technological innovation.
By Lucy Corkish
Dressing for the Surveillance Age by John Seabrook, in The New Yorker, March 16, 2020 Issue
The Right to Hide? Anti-Surveillance Camouflage and the Aestheticization of Resistance by Torin Monahan, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies Vol. 12, No. 2, June 2015, pp. 159–178
The rise and regulation of thermal facial recognition technology during the COVID-19 pandemic by Meredith Van Natta, Paul Chen, Savannah Herbek, Rishabh Jain, Nicole Kastelic, Evan Katz, Micalyn Struble, Vineel Vanam, Niharika Vattikonda in Journal of Law and the Biosciences, Volume 7, Issue 1, January-June 2020, lsaa038, https://doi.org/10.1093/jlb/lsaa038