Surveillance

How Fashion Designers Are Thwarting Facial Recognition Surveillance

Privacy activists say we should be alarmed by the rise of automated facial recognition surveillance. Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan says it's time to embrace the end of privacy as we know it.

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Every day, your movement is tracked. Your purchases are logged, your searches saved. And increasingly, your face is scanned.

Facial recognition technology is becoming more widespread daily, and governments are finding new applications in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Privacy International reports that 24 countries have already implemented location tracking to help ensure compliance with quarantines.

Were you thinking that face masks might help protect your privacy? China's facial recognition algorithms have already figured out a way around them. In January, The New York Times reported that a company called Clearview AI has created a database that makes it possible to snap a photo of a stranger and reveal that person's identity.

The technology was developed using more than three billion images scraped from public social media accounts by Hoan Ton-That, an Australian who HuffPost revealed has collaborated with anti-immigration alt-right operatives. Elements of Clearview AI are in use by more than 600 law enforcement agencies in North America—including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and ICE.

So can we resist the surveillance society? Should we?

Kate Rose says yes.

"I think you have a right to consent to how your information is used, especially if it's meant to be at some point used against you or used extrajudicially," says Rose, the cybersecurity analyst and fashion designer who founded Adversarial Fashion, a line of surveillance-resistant clothing. Its wares include masks meant to block facial recognition cameras, and shirts patterned with fake license plates meant to feed bad data into automated license plate readers.

Rose's concern about extrajudicial use of personal data is more plausible than ever in the age of coronavirus lockdowns.

Politico reported in late March that the Department of Justice has asked Congress pass a law allowing indefinite detention without trial of U.S. citizens during national emergencies. (The legislation has yet to advance.) Unauthorized movements picked up by surveillance could theoretically be a pretext for such indefinite detention.

"Privacy rights need to be more enshrined," says Rose, "in terms of protecting your right to any data collected about you [requiring] a warrant before it is used."

Rose is one of several designers trying to fight surveillance with fashion.

While her license plate shirts and dresses disseminate bad data, other anti-surveillance designers use fashion as a form of obstruction, such as camouflaging makeup or sunglasses that confuse facial recognition systems.

"I really love how people are exploring the different ways to counter surveillance technology and to empower people to do so," says Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) researcher Dave Maass. "But at the end of the day, people should not have to wear a mask or put on face paint or wear, like, complicated t-shirt patterns in order to protect their privacy. Our government should be protecting our privacy."

Maass and his EFF colleagues successfully lobbied the California legislature to pass a law that, starting in 2020, puts a three-year moratorium on law enforcement's use of facial recognition technology, including those departments who were experimenting with Clearview AI. It'll mean that law enforcement agencies in San Diego county will have to stop using a shared facial identification system available to officers in hand-held tablets.

The San Diego Sheriff's Department "was one of the first agencies that we identified…using mobile biometric technology…face recognition that they could use from the palms of their hands," says Maass. The data didn't stay local. According to Maass, San Diego, a border county, regularly shared access with the federal government, including Border Patrol and ICE.

"And we don't know how those agencies use that technology. We do know they used it, but we'd have no idea what their purposes were," says Maass.

San Francisco and Oakland have outright banned the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement. Some technologists think such bans are overreactions.

"Suspending A.I. [artifical intelligence] facial recognition like San Francisco and Oakland…is idiocy to be honest. And lives will be lost," says Zoltan Istvan, a tech writer and self-described transhumanist who is currently seeking the Libertarian Party's vice-presidential nomination. Istvan believes that humans should celebrate and embrace the disruptive capabilities of technology to modify the human body and experience. He even implanted an RFID chip in his hand that allows him to unlock his front door.

Facial recognition technology "is going to be very useful to the human race," says Istvan, "but we just kinda got to get over it being creepy." 

Istvan envisions authorities using facial recognition and other artificial intelligence–driven surveillance tools to prevent terrorist attacks by recognizing abnormal behaviors or suspicious individuals in crowds. Or to aid the government in fighting human trafficking.

Governments around the world are deploying other biometric surveillance tools as well, such as gait recognition and scanning for elevated body temperatures to isolate feverish individuals in a pandemic.

"Let us look at what [surveillance] can do for overcoming criminality in our cities. Let us look at what it can do for the overall safety," says Istvan. 

FaceMe is one example of such a security application. The developers originally marketed the software for virtual makeup demonstrations before it evolved into a product serving a wide range of uses, such as logging into apps, entering a secure facility, and identifying intruders. FaceMe's general manager Richard Carriere says the software has a precision level of up to 99.58 percent, the only non-Chinese or Russian company with such accurate results.

Although the majority of the company's clients are in the private sector, they have supplied technology to governments around the world. Carriere agrees with Istvan that facial recognition technology could be a giant boon to public safety while having the benefit of decreasing the likelihood of police interactions turning violent.

"If I'm a citizen and cops come to me, I'd be very happy for them to know who I am even before they come to me," says Carriere. 

Carriere pledges that the company won't sell its technology to repressive governments or agencies.

"I'd like to believe that we would only associate ourselves with police forces or law enforcement organizations that are respectful of individual rights," says Carriere. 

But U.S. law enforcement agencies are already showing a lack of accountability in how they use facial recognition technology. The police department in Chula Vista, California, failed to properly report to a federal oversight committee how it was using a facial recognition program, according to a fired whistleblower.

The Chula Vista Police Department declined our interview request.

"Police are very enthusiastic about adopting the technology, but they're not very enthusiastic about doing the due diligence of recording when this technology has been used, when it has been accessed, auditing the use of the technology, doing all the things that you would need to do to protect people's data," says Maass. "They want to collect it all, but they don't really care about protecting it all.

Maass worries about China's use of facial recognition surveillance in conjunction with a state-run social credit system, which assigns citizens a numerical score based on their behavior. China has also rolled out increased pandemic-related surveillance that monitors for fevers and flags individuals not wearing protective face masks during an outbreak.

"The thing that we can learn from China is that this surveillance, as it continues to grow, is going to be less and less about public safety and more and more about controlling people," says Maass. 

But Istvan believes that it's possible to deploy facial recognition surveillance without emulating China.

"I think the social credit system that China is using is absolutely awful," says Istvan. "They're setting such a bad example for the rest of the world that everyone's turning their back against A.I. facial recognition. There is a good way to use it."

Istvan believes that, ultimately, our entire conception of privacy will need to be revised.

"I believe in a society that's totally transparent, a society where sort of everybody can see what everybody is doing," says Istvan, who advocates a law requiring body cams that constantly record police officers while on duty and surveillance of all political figures when they are acting in an official capacity. "Privacy, I believe, really does steal our liberty away. It's transparency that's going to give us all the freedoms we want."

Maass disagrees.

"I do think conceptions of privacy are changing, but I think they're strengthening," says Maass. "Post–Clearview AI…people are concerned and outraged…and people will probably make different decisions on how they control their data online as a result of it."  

Rose thinks that as the technology becomes more powerful and present, Americans will need to take a page from the protesters in Hong Kong, who have used face masks, encrypted communication, and, most importantly, mass disobedience to resist authoritarian control.

"The…anti-surveillance actions that don't matter by yourself, when you hit a critical mass of people, matter a lot," she says, pointing to the ability of Hong Kong protesters to sustain their protest through mass participation and decentralized coordination. "I think that kind of belief in your power, even if you think it might not work 100 percent of the time…you together have this tremendous power."

Rose's aim isn't just to design clothing that thwart today's systems but to cultivate a community that continually develops new methods to confound the surveillance state as its tools continue evolving.

"It's a really important opportunity for us to try and get as far ahead as we can before we begin playing catch up again," says Rose. 

Produced by Zach Weissmueller and Justin Monticello. Opening graphics by Lex Villena. Camera by James Lee Marsh, John Osterhoudt, Weissmueller, and Monticello. Hong Kong camerawork by Edwin Lee.   

Music credits: Songs from the album Paradigm Lost by Kai Engel licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 2.0 license. 

Photo credits: "Thermal surveillance," by Dario Sabljak/agefotostock/Newscom; "Surveillance camera," Caro/Sorge/Newscom; "Chula Vista facial recognition tablet," Howard Lipin/TNS/Newscom

NEXT: Can Courts Distinguish Anti-BDS Laws from Public Accommodations Laws for First Amendment Purposes?

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  1. I’d still like to know the false-positive and false-negative rates. I do not believe the false-positive rate could ever be much less than 1 in ten thousand, and more no better than 1 in a hundred, when matched against a database of millions.

    1. Oh ho …. guy claims 99.85% accurate. That’s 15 out of 10,000, or 100 at a packed stadium, at best. Whether only false positive or false negative, that is not good enough.

      He also claims they sell only to the good guys. He is either lying his ass off, or hopelessly naive.

      But trying to ban this is also hopelessly naive. It will get to the point that every cell phone and dash came could have the technology to feed data into a database, and a lot of people will opt in for the perceived benefit of knowing more about the people they come across daily. Before then, individual cops will be using the apps with or without department approval, regardless of legality. They frame people now, steal from them, beat them up, and shoot them, regardless of department policy or laws for the little people.

      1. Also, human factors-wise, “deep fake” technology intrinsically undermines video surveillance. Irrefutable surveillance footage of Jesse Ventura murdering Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’ve heard rumor that there’s video footage of Barack Obama calling Trump a dipshit.

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      2. In Zoltan’s world we could surveil the police constantly as they or anyone else could surveil us. It seems you can have privacy or this technology but not both.

        “”I believe in a society that’s totally transparent, a society where sort of everybody can see what everybody is doing,” says Istvan, who advocates a law requiring body cams that constantly record police officers while on duty and surveillance of all political figures when they are acting in an official capacity. “Privacy, I believe, really does steal our liberty away. It’s transparency that’s going to give us all the freedoms we want.”

        I guess this is the idea of a technocrat, the idea that by giving up our privacy we can let the technology flourish, and by following and adapting ourselves to the technology, we’re on a road to good things.

        There’s a line in the Gaddis novel JR worth quoting:

        “James will say what he’s always said, that money buy privacy and that’s all it’s good for.”

        1. Istvan – “I think the social credit system that China is using is absolutely awful,” “Privacy, I believe, really does steal our liberty away. It’s transparency that’s going to give us all the freedoms we want.” Well as long as he thinks China is awful, sure… hand him the keys to everything.

          Fuck this guy. Istvan is that guy who would try to sell you on rape because it lets people experience human closeness, cuz it’s only the brutality part that is bad. If you just give into the rape, it’s kinda pleasant. – – – Someone please beat this shit out of this asshole.

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    2. Rates don’t matter. this should all be made illegal. Personal privacy needs to be added as the next Constitutional Amendment. The only way you should be surveilled by the government is when they have a warrant and actively put someone on that observation. Private entities should not be able to share databases with the government -ever- without a warrant and a specific person they are looking for. All the rest of the data should be tossed.

  2. //”I believe in a society that’s totally transparent, a society where sort of everybody can see what everybody is doing,” says Istvan, who advocates a law requiring body cams that constantly record police officers while on duty and surveillance of all political figures when they are acting in an official capacity. “Privacy, I believe, really does steal our liberty away. It’s transparency that’s going to give us all the freedoms we want.”//

    How fucking delusional do you have to be to believe this?

    1. Same people that believe “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” are fundamental rights.

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    2. “Surveillance of all political figures when they are acting in an official capacity.”

      Aren’t they called “back room deals”? How would that prevent those since I’m pretty sure that’s the single biggest problem? Suddenly politicians will just spend an average of 11 hours a day on the toilet.

      1. Because the people in charge of the surveillance superstate are going to subject themselves to the same invasive surveillance to which the rest of us peons will be subjected.

        Government is good.

        1. That sounds about right. They just want fairness. I was just thinking to myself how remarkable it was the every time Elizabeth Warren announced a plan for a new massive program, she would thoroughly map out the consequences for elected officials if a program failed to meet is goals and punishments for them if those programs were abused.

          1. ” They just want fairness.”

            Who told you that? I happen to know they also want accountability and revenge.

    3. Delusional enough to key an electronic lock to a transmitter in his body that any decent scanner should be able to suss (yes, more to it, but, autist crackers are, focused). He doesn’t seem all that bright, but really into shiny things.

    4. Istvan doesn’t even believe that.

      1. Yup. He’s either never met anyone from Hollywood, Twitter, or Instagram who’s absolutely full of shit in preaching “live your truth” or he’s one of them.

  3. By the way, that Huff-Po article is about nine miles of bullshit.

    1. It’s like Rachel Maddow had a love child with Alex Jones and was played Teach Your Children Well on a 24 hour loop tape. I’m pretty sure the article’s author cause a spike in push-pin and yarn prices.

      1. Facial recognition software company hires white supremacists to track criminals, lowland gorilla populations hardest hit.

  4. Great. Now we give up our privacy because cops are indiscriminately blasting everywhere?

  5. ‘Istvan envisions authorities using facial recognition and other artificial intelligence–driven surveillance tools to prevent terrorist attacks by recognizing abnormal behaviors or suspicious individuals in crowds. Or to aid the government in fighting human trafficking.’

    It could also be used by criminals to detect undercover police in their presence.

    Or is this stuff only supposed to be available to the government?

    1. If you read the HuffPo article, the idea is yes, it should only be in control of government, because if the alt-right gets hold of it…

  6. “a society where sort of everybody can see what everybody is doing”….

    Just image how well anti-miscegenation, anti-sodomy, marijuana criminalization laws could have been enforced if we lived in such a society totally transparent.

    There would never have been a Stonewall Riot because the Catholic Church and the long-arm of the law would have shut down Stonewall Inn the moment the first “queer” ordered a drink.

    There would be no Selma Riots because Jim Crow South would have been on to those Civil Rights movements like “white on rice”.

    Society and culture evolve slowly. It take a small group establish new norms, first in small enclaves out of the public eye, in the closet. Many of these would-be norms will be bat-shit crazy and stillborn (I’m looking at you US Quidditch); but given time and a nurturing, secluded environment, eventually (when they come out of the closet) some of these new subculture will resonate with society as a whole.

    A fully transparent society, on the other hand, is stifling. It doesn’t require government to act against these dissenters, it is enough for one’s family, friends and neighbors to know of one’s “deviant” behaviors. And thus society, as a whole, becomes stagnant.

    To contrast FaceMe with China’s social credit system is a red-herring. What China is doing is truly frightening, but it’s not clear to be at all that governmental abuse is a required element for a fully transparent society, as advocated by Istvan, to be a danger to us all.

    1. ” but it’s not clear to be at all that governmental abuse is a required element for a fully transparent society, as advocated by Istvan, to be a danger to us all.”

      Constant surveillance is supposed to be a two way street, so we should be able to see whatever the government sees, so total transparency is at least fair. Trouble is it’s a assault on our sense of modesty, the natural inclination not to be the center of attention, and is therefore an affront to human dignity.

      1. I’m still waiting for the release of names for Congressmen who used taxpayer funds to pay off settlements for their affairs and sex crimes. 260 of them. Prolly will be published just about any day now.

        Lessee… we have the FBI, CIA, NSA trapping our phone calls, still the need for FOIA requests, dictator wannabee governors, Congress launching fraudulent investigations. I’m thinking the only people they want transparency for is non-government citizens. It makes their job of spying on us easier and fewer need to lie about it if they just admit it and tell us it’s for our safety and of course, liberty. Slavery is liberty.

        1. ” I’m thinking the only people they want transparency for is non-government citizens. It makes their job of spying on us easier and fewer need to lie about it if they just admit it and tell us it’s for our safety and of course, liberty.”

          This is essentially what we have today. Technocrats would ‘improve’ the situation by making it a two way street. This would allow us to get the most bang for the buck by utilizing the technology to its fullest extent, realizing its fullest potential.

  7. prevent terrorist attacks lol

    1. I’ve speculated here before that future firearms will have to be connected to a government controlled net which can arm or disarm the weapon, overriding the owner’s manual control.

      1. As far as I can tell from looking at facial recognition technology, all you really need to do in order to thwart the system is be a black person and suddenly it fails all the time.

        Go figure.

  8. WTF happened to the personal freedom and the presumption of innocence? The whole construction of our republic is based on the certainty that as bad as individuals may sometimes be, the far greater threat to freedom and security comes from the power (not authority!) of the state.

    It’s a sad joke that Itzsvan thinks he’s a libertarian and has any hope of even competing for the Libertarian VP slot.

    1. Didn’t you read it? Itzsvan says we have to rethink liberty, that liberty is only found when we have no privacy, and that it’s for our own safety. Let’s not forget….. not doing such a thing would “cost lives”. We know cuz they say so, and above all, let’s save lives at any cost.

  9. Whatever happened to “Give me liberty or give me death”?

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