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Fashion Against Big Brother

- How clothing is used to combat ubiquitous surveillace

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The evolution of facial recognition technology is prompting protesters to adopt new resourceful ways of fooling the AI. The arms race is on.

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KLAUS Æ. MOGENSEN

Senior Futurist, Editor

Posted Dec 16, 2019 in Society & People

Fashion is a statement. Clothes make the man, as the saying goes (not to disregard women) – but man also makes the clothes. What you wear can be used to signal what class, clan, or tribe you belong to, what your interests are, and to communicate your political or cultural views. Clothes also protect you from the weather, and they can protect you from being recognised during political protests or if you are a public figure. The latter protection, however, is being challenged by new technology.

We are likely heading for a future where surveillance of citizens will be far more ubiquitous, pervasive, and detailed than George Orwell could have dreamed in his worst nightmares. The latest surveillance tool is facial recognition, where artificial intelligence can recognise people in the streets or other public places and follow their movements from camera to camera. Even hiding your face behind hats, glasses, scarves, and fake beards may not protect you from being recognised – AI can extrapolate what your face looks like anyway with impressive and increasing accuracy. There’s nowhere to hide, it seems.

Fashion may provide the answer if you want to ensure your privacy – not that you should worry about privacy unless you have something to hide, as politicians like to say – which probably means that they have glass doors on their toilets and no drapes on their bedroom windows. Or not.

Wearing ski masks, dark glasses, and fake beards may not protect you from facial recognition – but facial recognition can be fooled in other ways, and this weakness is now being used by protesters and others desiring privacy – and this protection even doubles as a radical fashion statement.

It may be as simple as wearing a headscarf or t-shirt with broken images of many faces, which supposedly makes it difficult for the AI to decide which is the real you. Or you can wear glasses with rims that make you look like someone else to the AI – even people of a different gender. Such glasses may even make you invisible to facial recognition. If you think garish glasses make you look silly to other people, you can instead opt for special makeup that fools facial recognition, such as the brand CV Dazzle thought up by designer Mike Harvey. CV Dazzle combines pixelated face paint with face beads and strands of hair hanging down over your face for a radical look that wouldn’t have looked odd on the cover of a 1980s cyberpunk book. But then again, we may be heading for cyberpunk ‘boring dystopia’, so that’s all good. If that’s not for you, you can always wear clown makeup – that’s also supposed to work. Or wear a transparent mask with lenses that distort your face, but still makes it recognisable to human beings.

It may only be a matter of time until facial recognition technology improves to a point where such shenanigans will be of no use. Maybe then we will start wearing full, three-dimensional masks. But wait – haven’t governments started introducing laws banning wearing masks in public? I wonder why that is…

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