Phones, computers, tablets, TVs, schools, grocery stores and even modern fridges all have one thing in common: cameras. These days, it feels like we’re always being watched. Well, you’re not crazy. With cameras everywhere, people have less privacy than ever, and governments are all too keen to get in on the action. But there is a way to fight back. With crazy patterns and seemingly random makeup, there are people who dedicate their time to fooling facial recognition technology with … fashion.
Cameras seem to coat the public: on street corners, in stores, in banks and, of course, in our own pockets. And while many use them for innocent reasons, be it capturing sunsets or heartwarming moments, others have a more sinister use in mind — control. As we venture further into the digital age, we wade deeper into uncharted waters. While governments are becoming more tech-savvy and using modern innovations to police the rights of citizens, who knew fashionistas would be leading the charge to protect our privacy and combat AI with some strange styles.
At its core, anti-surveillance fashion is aimed at doing exactly what it sounds like: hindering the efforts of malevolent actors in their quest for mass surveillance. Facial recognition cameras are increasingly used by governments at all levels to track citizens and keep profiles on them, causing concern among many that our days of anonymity are nearing their end.
However, clothing brands are popping up which seek to combat the misuse of facial recognition, employing creative patterns and motifs to fool the tech that’s increasingly used to keep us in line. As the great fashion teacher and historian Amanda Hallay-Heath often remarked, “Fashion’s not an island, it’s a response.” Few embody that sentiment more than the Italian clothing company, Cap_able.
There aren’t many other established brands dedicating themselves to this cause, but there are people innovating specific fashion pieces and makeup styles in this space. For example, the DIY camera-shy hoodie, which uses 12 high-powered infrared LEDs, as well as Incognito, the gold-plated facial jewelry piece which covers the wearer’s cheekbones and part of their forehead.
Anti-surveillance makeup styles are also emerging as a way to combat camera. They utilize bright, vivid colors and geometric elements designed to break up the symmetry of the human face, hindering facial recognition softwares from detecting the user.
Moreover, anti-surveillance clothing and makeup also have the added bonus of allowing the wearer to still be recognizable to their human peers in public, meaning it cannot be misused by potential criminals who wish to hide; these techniques only render them undetectable to AI, not eyes and brains.
It’s important to understand how facial recognition algorithms operate in the first place. Maikel León Espinosa, a business technology professor at UM, explains this technology in layman’s terms.
“Facial recognition technology works by analyzing and identifying unique patterns and features in a person’s face. Facial recognition technology can vary in complexity and accuracy depending on the specific algorithms and hardware used. Advanced systems may incorporate machine learning and deep neural networks,” he said.
Typically, facial recognition can be beneficial to society and individuals. “Facial recognition can enhance security measures by verifying individuals’ identities. [It] can streamline user authentication and authorization processes. Businesses can use facial recognition … [to personalize] experiences and [improve] efficiency. [And] in the medical field, facial recognition can help in patient identification and medical management,” said León Espinosa.
However, there are drawbacks and grave vulnerabilities which can be exploited. Apart from the typical concerns surrounding privacy, there can also be harmful biases affecting certain populations — after all, algorithms are coded by humans, who can unknowingly insert their own prejudices into them.
“Facial recognition algorithms can exhibit bias, leading to misidentification, particularly among people of color and other underrepresented groups. This can result in unjust consequences, such as wrongful arrests,” León Espinosa said.
In fact, this has already occurred. Police departments in Florida have few limitations regarding when and how they can utilize facial recognition databases when conducting law enforcement, and they have access to tens of millions of images of Floridians. South Florida police departments in particular have experienced serious failures while using this technology.
According to the Pulitzer Center, about 80 percent of image scans by the Broward Sheriff’s Office and almost 60 percent by the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office involved Black citizens, far exceeding each county’s respective Black populations and arrest rates. In fact, a study by the National Institute of standards and Technology revealed that Black people are misidentified at higher rates than people of other races.
It’s no surprise, then, that concerns regarding mass surveillance run deep in our culture and are only growing. From the “assigned FBI agent” memes that peaked during quarantine to growing societal paranoia over TikTok, worry over the formation of a surveillance state is spreading.
Junior microbiology major Olivia Martínez is particularly worried about the misuse of artificial intelligence.
“I don’t particularly care if a camera is watching me while I’m walking out in public, but I feel like the government should be more transparent about what they’re doing with our data, and I feel like there should be a way to prevent abuse of AI,” said Martínez.
Others, like senior biology major Bingwei Tang, are more apathetic. Tang calls for more transparency from corporations and governing bodies about the use of AI, but does not believe the technology will bring about an Orwellian dystopia.
“I don’t really care too much about AI or what anyone uses it for, as long as it doesn’t affect me. I think the government should be more transparent about [how it uses AI], but it doesn’t really matter to me if a camera recognizes my face.”
Notwithstanding the advancements of AI and facial recognition, anti-surveillance strategies evolve and advance to combat each technological innovation, as well as public pressure on governments to ban or restrict such algorithms. Only time will tell which side prevails in this 21st century struggle.
words&photo_matt jiménez. design_charlotte deangelis.
This article was published in Distraction’s Fall 2023 print issue.
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