You’ve heard about the surveillance state, but what about a surveillance society? One where it’s not just the government with an eye on you, but everyone else too. That security camera at the corner store, the red light cam at the intersection, the teens on the bus sending snaps, and even your friends uploading a night on the town to Facebook; each are a single neuron in a slowly growing brain getting smarter by the day. It’s not just that 1984 got it wrong, it’s that it lacked a large enough imagination. In the public sphere, this summer the FBI will introduce its Next Generation Identification (NGI) biometrics database, a massive overhaul of the previous fingerprint-only system which will collect “iris scans, palm prints, face-recognition-ready photos, and voice data” and make that data widely available to state and federal agencies. On the private side, Facebook is near to perfecting their own face-processing software using a deep learning AI which improves itself by feeding on bulk data. DeepFace is for now only a research project, all that effort spent just so they can make auto-tagging quicker, but the potential applications boil over from there. The data vacuum that looms over the online world is intruding on the physical with an appetite for the metadata of flesh, and adapting to it won’t be as easy as using a TOR client or proxy. The collection of real world bulk data is even spawning its own field of academia, Social Physics, which envisions a kind of real-time census of citizen data. The question left to be answered then is how can one opt-out, if only temporarily, from such a system. How can we fool machine eyes, eyes of algorithms and determinism, instead of human ones? The answer may lie in abandoning the old methods of concealment and adapting all new methods of confusion.
Biometrics, the tell-tale signs of our bodies, have been used for security and tracking purposes long before our modern dilemmas. Fingerprints and iris scanning have been staples of biometric identification for years yet have been spoofed by new and clever methods time and time again. Outsmarting these systems can be done with something simple like a gummy bear, or highly sophisticated like synthetic body parts. Researchers discovered you could spoof iris scanners with totally made up, artifical irises reverse-engineered from the code they use in their database. In the past these systems have been heavily favored for security applications, with you putting up your biometrics against a system for one time entry. However increasingly we are seeing the intention run the other way, with systems going after your biometrics intent on collecting and saving data.
a synthetic iris reverse-engineered from database code
The story of modern surveillance is intimately linked to the proliferation of cameras in our every day lives and the public-private efforts that push them there. Last October Polygon published an investigation on the growth of Chicago’s camera surveillance system which has made it the most watched city in the US. What started in 2003 with 30 cameras in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods has since become 24,000 public and private cameras all linked into the city’s operations center. Initial successes in deterring crime fueled the push for more cameras, and the rush of new cameras subsequently fueled the need for automation as manpower becomes an issue. At some point it’s simply not possible to have eyes on all feeds all the time, which is where video analytics and facial recognition comes in. Operation Virtual Shield and the OEMC outfit are a case study of what these partnerships can do when resources are pooled and money is to be made. Only a few pieces separates something like Chicago’s surveillance system and the FBI’s new NGI system, and you can bet someone is working night and day to fill that gap.
For the modern l’étranger seeking to elude these systems, spoofing won’t cut it, and full masks are increasingly finding themselves outlawed. The focus then rests on finding ways to distract a system from important data or confusing it altogether. One of the most prominent anti-facial recognition projects out there now is known as CV Dazzle, by designer Adam Harvey, which draws inspiration from the old WWI dazzle camouflage. With exotic hair-styling and vibrant colors, the intent is not to conceal the face but confuse the observer, purposefully destroying landmarks and creating new ones, jostling all the patterns that software anchors itself on. Harvey lists the four main guidelines for any facial camo;
1. Avoid enhancers
They amplify key facial features.
2. Partially obscure the nosebridge area
The region where the nose, eyes, and forehead intersect is a key facial feature.
3. Partially obscure the ocular region
The position and darkness of eyes is a key facial feature.
4. Remain inconspicuous
For camouflage to function, it must not be perceived as a mask or disguise.
Harvey is not the only person to latch onto the idea. There is a growing number of New Media artists experimenting with masks and facial design prompted by the increasing presence of surveillance and driven by a need to reclaim individual privacy. Questions on security, subversion, and race all sprout up, as the item at the center of focus here, the face, is so crucial to our concept of identity.
an algorithm desperately searching for a face
Combating cameras doesn’t take a degree in fashion or design however. There are cheap, lo-tech ways to keep your face out of the feed while not sticking out in the physical crowd. The secret is infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye but very annoying to infrared-seeing security cameras. By blasting the camera with infrared light, your face is hidden by a white splotch, kind of like if you were to look into the sun. The lights have to be embedded in your clothing or on your person and close to your face. There are many guides online on how to create your own infrared hat (or “invisible mask”) for cheap — around ten bucks — and variations have also toyed with the idea on glasses, including for potential anti-paparazzi purposes.
Stationary cameras are only half the issue however. The vast majority of cameras around us are held by us and are pointed back at us. We document ourselves and each other in more intimate detail than any government could ever hope to do. And increasingly these means of convenience are being turned against us, with public and private efforts using whatever we give them. In 2011, photos of the Vancouver riots were used by the police and public in conjunction with Facebook to identify rioters and individuals who vandalized property. Overseas the same idea is taken to the extreme, with law enforcement using social media to track down protesters and round them up during the Arab Spring. If avoiding Facebook’s auto-tagging is a matter of life or death for you, then “ugly” clothing may be in your future. Simone Niquille’s REALFACE Glamoflage are designed with Facebook tagging in mind, meant throw off the pattern-seeking algorithms and feed them a bunch of red herring. Also inspired in part by WWI dazzle camouflage, but more largely by the “ugly t-shirt” from William Gibson’s Zero History, Niquille’s shirts conjure up the idea of multicam or digital patterns trail-mixed with spatterings of celebrity or beauty. It’s an odd pairing that is revolting to the eyes and chaos to facial recog. Navneet Alang touches on ugly fashion and makes a connection the normcore trend and how they are both concerned with the readability of the self.
But we’re not the only ones changing. The growing surveillance system we’re only beginning to adapt to is already figuring out its next move, and it’s showing off the prototypes. Back in 2012 a civilian aircraft, modified with a new camera surveillance system, captured HD video of everything that occurred in a 10-square-mile area of Compton. The system allowed police officers to zoom, rewind, and watch actions occur in real time for up to six hours. Though only a test, Ross McNutt of Persistence Surveillance Systems is working to improve the cameras’ abilities and sell them to law enforcement. McNutt says the idea originated in Iraq where they had to track individuals planting IEDs, making it part of the larger wave of military technology and equipment which broke on the shore of the War on Terror and has since rolled back home. Drone technology in particular appears to be the future of everything from law enforcement to package delivery. The eyes of a drone are not something that you know is around the corner or which can be easily shielded with a hand. They can appear suddenly and can remain indefinitely. These are cameras not so easily confused, as far as we know, so the tools for subverting them track their roots to older methods. An example is Harvey’s Stealth Wear, designed as an anti-drone garment which takes inspiration from Middle Eastern garb. It reduces the body’s thermal footprint, making them blend into the cooler hues around them.
Why did you choose to use Islamic-inspired dress?
The rationale behind the hijab and burqa is that it provides a separation between ‘man and God’. Simiarly, the rationale behind the ‘Anti-Drone’ Burqa and Hijab are to provide a separation between ‘man and drone’.
But does subverting surveillance need to rest at the individual level? Can there exist communal or societal structures that work against or dissuade mass surveillance? Much of our thinking tends to be so narrow, always down to the Me level, we fail to realize the answers to our problems could be bigger, more…architectural. In 2012 Asher Kohn, a law student auditing an Extreme Architecture class, designed for his final project “Shura City”, or, “An Architectural Defense From Drones”. The idea was to fashion a neighborhood not so it was invincible to bombing, but “inscrutable” to drones. This meant using chaotic patterns and criss-crossing lines to break up lighting and shadows and mess with a machine’s pattern recognition. The buildings would resemble Safdie’s Habitat 67 with thick glass mashrabiya windows displaying QR codes. The latticework roof along with a series of bâdgirs and minarets would help control the temperature while casting confusing shadows to conceal those in the courtyard and obstruct any low flying drones. It’s important to distinguish the intent of such a city, as Kohn does not see it as a classical fortress;
On the human scale of things, shelter is key.Panels can be replaced, removed, or revamped as needed to let in the sun, the rain, and the moon. The City is not hermetically sealed, only wary of trouble. It cannot be overemphasized that the City is a home and a community. The courtyard (spoken of later) that is protected by this roof is the place where the community reads books, takes picnics, and gossips about neighborhood beauties. The roof allows people to feel comfortable meeting and mixing, knowing that there is something between them and the unspeakable darkness outside.
Shura City is constructed to be livable. It is built according to local logic, using local mate-rials, and amenable to local needs. It is meant to be alien – but not hostile – from the outside while homey and familiar from the inside. It ismeant to confuse the machines and theirdistant operators while creating a safe zone forpeople whose lives are being rended by war.Shura City is not about judgment on the survivors or destruction of their persecutors. Shura City is about using architecture to create a space for humanity in an increasingly inhuman sphere.
Kohn admits the idea is far from complete and has its weaknesses, but it’s meant as a jumping off point for future discussion on the topic. A world that needs a Shura City will probably never exist, but his demonstration of the lengths we’d have to go to fight such intrusion speaks to the anxieties of our time.
The issue that runs through most surveillance critique is the transformation of the innocent into a person of interest. However disguising oneself, or any effort at opting-out of surveillance, is likely to make someone a person of interest anyway. Is anything really lost or gained? Do ulterior forces know less about you if they can’t observe you directly? Why hide, what reason then could there be to opt-out? Maybe we fail to realize that’s what we concede, that we have nothing left to give up. Do not attract attention. Do not step out of line. You’ll be safer if you’re boring.