Modern field guide to security and privacy

Privacy by design: How fashion combats surveillance

Designers, artists, and students around the world are creating accessories and clothing meant to hide wearers' identities from mass surveillance.

Photo courtesy of Reflectacles
Reflectacles glasses reflect light making wearers more visible at night but undetectable by facial recognition cameras.

Scott Urban didn't intend to make a fashion statement about digital privacy. In fact, when the Chicagoan started making eyeglasses in 2005, his handmade wooden frames invoked a time of craftsmanship long before computers.

After a customer asked if he could design glasses to make cyclists more visible at night, Mr. Urban began experimenting with plastics and resins. His work with reflective eyewear began as concerns about growing level of urban surveillance mounted in cities such as Chicago.

When he launched a Kickstarter campaign for what he calls Reflectacles this past fall, it didn't take long for someone to ask: Had Urban considered his glasses as anti-surveillance accessories? It was like a light bulb coming on. 

“I spent the next month doing nothing but recalculating and making new content for the site,” he says. He created a version of Reflectacles called Ghost designed to protect wearers from video surveillance. “There are a lot of people out there who’d be really interested in not being seen by surveillance, and I’m one of those people.”

As surveillance technologies become increasingly commonplace, and advanced, many privacy-conscious designers such as Urban are coming up with new ways of disrupting facial recognition software, and they are getting support. Reflectacles' Kickstarter campaign raised $41,315nearly 50 percent more than its goal, and Mr. Urban plans to ship the glasses in June. 

"I’ve always been a completely private person," Mr. Urban says. "I’m not a tin foil hat wearer, but I see the way the world works. Symbolically, the Reflectacles Ghost is a stance against mass surveillance."

As the name suggests, Reflectacles reflect visible light such as camera flashes and car headlights, but the Ghost version also reflects infrared light. When Urban finished his Ghost prototype, “I went over to a little bodega corner shop and had them look at me on their camera. They couldn’t see me,” he says. "They were like, 'What did you turn on?'" The glare made him utterly unrecognizable. 

Another project that aims to mask an individual's identity with disruptive reflections is ISHU, an antiflash clothing line six years in the making from London-based designer Saif Siddiqui. His interest in privacy was piqued by the rise of paparazzi culture.

"If you go out to a club or bar these days, there are cameras everywhere," he says. "I feel like a human being has a right to their privacy, and this came from that."

He makes his scarves and clothing reflective by using prismatic metallic ink. It's attracted the attention of celebrities such as Jay-Z, who included some limited-edition ISHU products in a recent New York City pop-up store.

"Going invisible is a superpower," Mr. Siddiqui says. "Being mysterious and being private is the physical manifestation of going dark on social media."

Adam Harvey, an artist known for raising issues related to digital privacy, debuted his latest project at the Sundance Film Festival: HyperFace Camouflage is a series of patterned textiles designed to confuse specific facial recognition algorithms. He created it for interaction design studio Hyphen Labs' NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, a project that examines how black women will interact with technology in the future.

HyperFace Camouflage is a natural extension of Harvey's CV Dazzle project, which was part of his thesis at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), an interdisciplinary master’s program that draws together designers, artists, engineers and computer scientists. CV Dazzle aimed to confuse a facial recognition system with avant-garde hairstyles and makeup. 

Two current ITP students are following in his footsteps to create artistic interventions in response the lack of biometric privacy in public spaces.

Rebecca Ricks and Shir David sewed electronics into the brim of a ball cap that shine infrared light onto the wearer’s face, invisible to the naked eye but making the face an illuminated blur when seen through an infrared camera. They call the project Unidentified Halo

Ms. David explains they also considered a shoe that could alter your gait, but after they got in touch with a New York University (NYU) professor specializing in biometrics, Nasir Memon, they decided to play with infrared light. 

“We wanted to create something that wouldn’t call attention to the user wearing it,” Ms. Ricks says. “It’d be something you’d see someone on the street wearing. We wanted to disrupt in a way that wouldn’t disturb others.”

The duo quickly prototyped some hats with LEDs and tested them using surveillance cameras in their building that students are able to access and control. They succeeded in making the person wearing the hat unidentifiable by Google’s facial recognition algorithms.

“The image from the camera looks like a tiny halo,” Ms. David says. “Even if you could see a tiny ghost over there, it’s just a glowing over your face.”

They might continue improving on the project or making DIY kits, but for now they’re satisfied that their project got a passing grade.

“As people make tools to subvert technology, technology gets more advanced,” Ms. Ricks says. “If we know cameras are going to be more advanced in a year, is there still a point in making it? We decided it’s still important to build the tools and make these wearables. It’s a tool, but it’s also a statement.”

“The tech is changing so much that existing tools of subversion have to change,” she says. “Facial recognition algorithms are getting smarter, so we have to determine what the weak points are. ... When you have a password stolen you can always change the password, but when it comes to biometrics, your fingerprint is something you always have."

And physiological biometrics such as irises and fingerprints are just the beginning. Mr. Memon, the NYU professor, says behavioral biometrics, such as gait and posture and even how you interact with a smartphone, are growing in importance.

“The way you perform a gesture has some distinctive characteristics,” he explains. “A pinch gesture or a slide or a scroll.” It might not be unique, but it is distinctive enough to differentiate between multiple users of the same screen. 

“There are times when anonymity is something that is essential,” Mr. Memon says. “A healthy society should provide some means for citizens to interact anonymously when they choose to,” for example when protesting.

He’d been telling his students to create something like the Unidentified Halo project for a long time, but it wasn’t until Ricks and David approached him that it came to fruition. “Deep learning is wonderful, but what we’re finding out is that it’s brittle, it can fall apart with the right poke,” Memon says. Disrupting surveillance technology “is a cat-and-mouse game, but it’s a game worth playing.”

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