Privacy-Friendly Fashion for a Surveillance-State Age

You can literally wear your principles on your sleeve while baffling facial recognition technology.


Fashion is fun, but it also serves a practical purpose responding to the environments in which we live. When the weather turns cold, we put on heavy clothes that we shed as the temperature rises. We cover our heads when it rains or under the glaring sun but doff the hats when we have ceilings over our heads. And when the society around us transforms into an all-seeing surveillance state, fashion adapts to conceal our identities from prying cameras and their creepy operators.

That all-seeing surveillance state is on the march from Britain through the U.S. and to Hong Kong. Governments and corporations around the world are stepping up the use of surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology to identify protesters, pedestrians, and customers and track their movements. Simultaneously, people at risk if recognized by unfriendly officials, or just uneasy at the prospect of living in a panopticon, are pushing back with inventive means of confusing or blinding cameras. They're assisted in their efforts by innovative technologies and entrepreneurs who see a market among customers who value their privacy.

Among those fans of privacy are many residents of Hong Kong. In their continuing stand against China's authoritarian government, inhabitants of the specially administered city have come up with a range of clever responses to government attempts to suppress protests and identify participants.

"By using umbrellas to shield identifying features from CCTV cameras—and in some cases using lasers, to fully derail image-capturing abilities—they have kept themselves safer from retribution," Liz Wolfe recently noted for Reason. Protesters also wear helmets to protect against less-lethal munitions fired at the crowds, and to further hide their faces from observing cameras. If the protests continue, Hong Kong might become a natural market for products specifically intended to obscure people's features.

"Can't change your face. Once it is tied to your ID, there's no going back," Scott Urban, the developer of Reflectacles, tells me by email. His glasses frames and clip-ons interfere with both algorithm-based traditional facial recognition as well as more sophisticated technologies that map faces with infrared.

Reflectacles' lenses are opaque to infrared, obscuring people's faces, even as the frames reflect both visible and infrared light to blind surveillance cameras. Clip-ons can be fastened over prescription lenses for the benefit of people who need their eyesight corrected.

surveillance state glasses

"My concern with facial recognition is not with government, but much more so corporations," says Urban, who eschews social media and loyalty cards and relies on a flip phone for communication. "For some reason people are under the persuasion that when governments use facial recognition, it is a breach of privacy, but at the same time they willingly give up all of their true privacy to corporations."

Fretting over corporations instead of governments is a distinction that might make more sense for Americans than for Hong Kong residents, surrounded as we are by increasingly intrusive technology that observes our every move and that we often purchase ourselves. Conscious of privacy concerns, some local governments, such as in San Francisco, even promise not to use facial recognition technology—at least for now—even as identification technology becomes standard in consumer devices.

Then again, governments and corporations often work hand-in-hand. License plate scanning around the country is a joint public-private operation, with technology and databases maintained by companies including Vigilant Solutions on behalf of police departments and other government agencies. Is that a corporate or government threat? The answer probably depends on who drops the hammer on you—and government hammers tend to be nastier than those in the private sector.

Not that you need to worry about who operates the scanners when you set out to thwart them by donning shirts, dresses, and jackets that are printed with images of license plates.

"The patterns on the goods in this shop are designed to trigger Automated License Plate Readers, injecting junk data in to the systems used by the State and its contractors to monitor and track civilians and their locations," Adversarial Fashion boasts about its products.surveillance fashion

It's an approach that's not intended to protect individual identities, but instead to monkeywrench the surveillance state by jamming the system with crap scans of license plates in bogus locations. The idea is to chew up surveillance resources and render databases unreliable.

For more personal protection, you could just pull a hoody over your face. But that approach might get you in trouble in a Britain that's not-so-slowly converting itself into a real-life version of George Orwell's Airstrip One. Police there are now forcing people to reveal their faces to surveillance cameras—and even fining those who object.

As an alternative, you could hide your real face among a mass of "HyperFace" prints on your clothing that baffle facial recognition software.

"Amid a kinetic assortment of grid-like structures printed on the fabric, black squares suggest tiny eyes, noses and mouths," reports the BBC. "The cameras' facial recognition algorithms are confused. Your identity is secure; your privacy, protected."

To complete the outfit, you might go full Juggalo, wearing the black and white makeup favored by fans of Insane Clown Posse that apparently confuses the hell out of facial recognition technology. Or, maybe you could add a little life to your ensemble with color printouts developed by Belgian scientists that make people essentially invisible to high-tech surveillance. "The researchers showed that the image they designed can hide a whole person from an AI-powered computer-vision system," according to MIT Technology Review.

Are the powers-that-be going to ban vibrant prints and busy patterns that make their software sad?

Honestly, that's a real possibility—at least in some jurisdictions. The surveillance state of the future may well come with a drab dress code. But, for now, all of these garments, accessories, and designs are legal and available to be deployed in the escalating conflict between surveillance-state snoops and privacy advocates.

Fashion has always changed in response to weather, and when it comes to surveillance, it's pouring out with no signs of letting up.

NEXT: Justice Department Shakes Up Bureau of Prisons Leadership Following Jeffrey Epstein's Death

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  1. Good thing we have the US constitution to protect us from this kind of thing - - - - -

  2. Is it the black and white face paint that protects Juggalos from facial recognition cameras, or is it the hypnotically bouncing moobs and belly button, suggestive of a googly-eyed, whistling happy-go-lucky Humpty Dumpty that will never fall off the wall?

  3. This is actually a minor plot point in Neal Stephenson's new book, Fall: Or, Dodge in Hell.

  4. O/T - Former Chicago police superintendent defends background checks on Chicago Police Board speakers.

    Chicago Tribune Article

    1. When do we stop paying attention to Gary McCarthy? I thought... hoped... that once he was out, we'd never have to pay attention to him again. Also Jay Cutler.

  5. That license plate pattern is cute, but unless each one is custom printed with random plates, all it will do is add a bunch of false positives for a few plates. You can't get vanity plates matching real patterns, so you can't even try to match the clothes.

    1. Having recently changed my State of residence, I have four extra license plates. Perhaps I could sew them to a vest? lol

      1. Best to destroy them. People steal those and put them on their cars. If they get a camera ticket or are involved in illegal activity the cops will come after you.

  6. Reflectacles' lenses are opaque to infrared, obscuring people's faces, even as the frames reflect both visible and infrared light to blind surveillance cameras. Clip-ons can be fastened over prescription lenses for the benefit of people who need their eyesight corrected.

    I'm having trouble picturing the situation where I would need (for $165) to evade surveillance cameras but would be OK with strapping huge garish reflective sunglasses to my face. Maybe if I were trying to evade police at a rave?

  7. Why do we all just do the simple thing and get petitions started that bans the state level from setting up the surveillance system in the first place. It is the local governments that are leading this anyway here in the U.S. We pot legalized that way now it is time to use that to destroyed the surveillance state here.

    1. You mean some sort of federalism? You should be ashamed, I tell you, ashamed!

    2. Aw, that's so cute!

      Legalizing pot is nothing compared the with the power grab of knowing where everyone is at any given moment.

      But send me a copy, and I'll sign.

      1. "Legalizing pot is nothing compared the with the power grab of knowing where everyone is at any given moment."

        In the bigger picture, I agree with you, though the harm done to many lives due to silly pot laws is far from significant.

  8. My vote works to repeal cruel coercive laws passed by the political state then larded into "agreements" for corporate products. But the State itself is using similar technology to jimmy up vital statistics documents so translators cannot use optical character recognition that enables us to easily sort through decades of such translations and speed up the process. There is so much "security" garbage that even after added work sorting it out, the software crashes and we are back at 1980s-level squinting at blurry faxes. Immigrants thus pay more for poorer translations of their papers.

  9. "Why do we all just do the simple thing and get petitions started that bans the state level from setting up the surveillance system in the first place."

    Aside from it already being in place, I think the public's attitude is one of resigned inevitability. A possible solution might be to open surveillance up, give those of us who up to now have been on the receiving end equal access to the technology and essentially kiss our privacy goodbye, and give everyone the ability to surveill everyone else.

    1. "" I think the public’s attitude is one of resigned inevitability."'

      Maybe, but I tend to think the public doesn't really care. I don't think they think about it enough to be resigned to the inevitability. I believe the prevailing attitude is if I'm not doing anything wrong I have nothing to fear.

  10. The license plate shirt seems to work. I'm having a hard time focusing on her boobs.

  11. Some people might thinking this apparel as "cool" or "chic," they forget it us our duties as slaves in our beloved socialist state to make our endearing and loving secret policemen's jobs as easy as possible.
    Wearing such clothing only makes them put down their coffee, donuts and look away from their porn sites to further investigate our notorious and illegal activities such as talking to other people without written permission, continue working without first raising our hands and chewing gum without a permit.
    So lay off these garments of confusion, and let our obvious betters spy on us and everyone else to ensure there is no counter-revolutionary thoughts, actions or people in our socialist paradise.

  12. Par for the course...I spend decades accumulating my 'Joe Shit the Ragman' wardrobe and perfecting the 'grey man' look, only to learn that I should have been buying skirts, donning Reflectacles and painting my face like Pennywise the Dancing Clown? I like where this country is headed!

  13. Seems like an open and shut case of conspiracy to corrupt a federal computer system. Have a nice time in the pen. But try not to commit suicide to soon after arrest, it looks bad for the system.

  14. Hey ed, the link in the pencil skirt pic needs a colonoscopy between the haitch tee tee pee ess and the whack whack. Jest sayin'.

  15. if kampers don't know, Jamaica and a number of other carribean countries have outlawed anyone -including turistas- wearing camoflauge clothing, since they claim it would cause confusion with the kops/military who wear camo...

  16. that 4th Amendment skirt won't help you when the TSA goons turn on the Rapeyscan, and then go in for the pat-down.

  17. we are impressed by the details that you have on your site

  18. That is not new that using umbrellas to shield identifying features from CCTV cameras.This is amazing to hide your real face prints on clothing that baffle facial recognition software.

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