You can’t just walk through the streets of any given city expecting to be anonymous anymore. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, and you can even unwittingly end up in the background of strangers’ social media photos, recognized by AI systems, and tagged in them, regardless of whether you actually have an account of your own.
Unless you’re a literal hermit living in a remote place with little human contact, it’s nearly impossible to stay “off the grid,” so to speak, when it comes to facial recognition databases. But for now, at least, there are a few ways to stymie the technology, and one of them involves obscuring your features in ways that the software finds confusing.
The Incognito Mask by Polish designer Ewa Nowak offers an easy way to do just that. Looking like a pair of strange sculptural sunglasses, the accessory is made of brass and features a vertical piece that sits on your forehead and two circles that hang over your cheeks, just below your eyes.
It may look a bit ridiculous, but according to Nowak, it actually works. She uploaded images of models wearing the device to Facebook, and its algorithms were unable to detect the wearers’ faces.
She explains: “The project touches on the subject of social surveillance and protection of one’s own image in public places. The object is designed to protect the image against [the] face recognition algorithms used in modern cameras installed in public space[s]. It is a kind of mask made of brass, shaped to the shape of the face.”
“The three elements on it make the human face unrecognized by the camera. This project was preceded by a long-term study on the shape, size, and location of mask elements so that it actually fulfill[ed] its task. When testing solutions, I used the DeepFace algorithm, which is used by Facebook. The second part of the project is a kind of object — a joke, a mirror hood [likening] the user to the environment.”
This kind of “face camouflage” confuses cameras by making it hard for them to discern features. This technique can also be used with makeup and hairstyles, as modeled by the open-source face detection toolkit CVDazzle, which derives its name from the cubist-inspired designs used by the World War I naval camouflage system Dazzle. Facial recognition algorithms rely on the identification and spatial relationship of key facial features like the symmetry of eyes and tonal contours of cheeks and noses.
Unfortunately, only a few people will want to walk around looking quite so avant-garde — at least for the time being. Perhaps fashion will evolve in the near future with these kinds of privacy-protecting styles in mind. Nowak’s Incognito Mask has the benefit of being easy to put on and take off, which is particularly handy if you’re trying to be relatively inconspicuous.
Who knows — maybe this is the future of fashion for those who don’t want to be relentlessly tracked at every moment. Or maybe facial recognition technology will advance far enough to see beyond such tricks, and we’ll have to fight for our privacy in ways that are a little more direct.