Fri, Feb 07, 2020 - Page 9 News List

Privacy activists don ‘dazzle’ makeup to beat Met surveillance

By James Tapper  /  The Observer

Wearing makeup has long been seen as an act of defiance, from teenagers to New Romantics. That defiance has taken on a harder edge, as growing numbers of people use it to try to trick facial recognition systems.

Interest in so-called dazzle camouflage appears to have grown substantially since London’s Metropolitan Police on Jan. 24 announced that officers would be using live facial recognition cameras on the city’s streets — a move described by privacy campaigners and political activists as “dangerous,” “oppressive” and “a huge threat to human rights.”

Unlike fingerprinting and DNA testing, there are few restrictions on how police can use the new technology, and some of those who are concerned have decided to assert their right not to be put under surveillance by using makeup as a weapon.

Members of the Dazzle Club have been conducting silent walks through London while wearing asymmetric makeup in patterns intended to prevent their faces from being matched on any database.

“There was this extraordinary experience of hiding in plain sight,” said Anna Hart, of Air, a not-for-profit art group, who founded the club with fellow artists Georgina Rowlands and Emily Roderick.

“We made ourselves so visible in order to hide. The companies selling this tech talk about preventing crime. There is no evidence this prevents crime. It might be sometimes used when crime has been committed, but they push the idea that this will make us safer, that we will feel safer,” she said.

Facial recognition works by mapping facial features — mainly the eyes, nose and chin — by identifying light and dark areas, then calculating the distance between them. That unique facial fingerprint is then matched with others on a database.

Makeup attempts to disrupt this by putting dark and light colors in unexpected places, either to confuse the technology into mapping the wrong parts of the face or concluding there is no face to map.

The concept was created by an artist, Adam Harvey, who coined the term “computer vision dazzle,” or “cv dazzle,” to mean a modern version of the camouflage used by the British Royal Navy during World War I.

Many other artists, designers and technologists have been inspired by his attempts to hide without covering the face.

Liu Jingcai, a design student, created a wearable face projector, while Dutch artist Jip van Leeuwenstein made a clear plastic mask that creates the illusion of ridges along the face.

Others have used hats and T-shirts with patterns that are designed to trick cameras into not recognizing part of an image as a human at all.

Researchers at the University of KU Leuven in Belgium managed to avoid recognition by holding a large photograph of a group of people. Yet few people used these countermeasures on any regular basis until the Dazzle Club began last year as a response to the installation, later scrapped, of technology at King’s Cross, London.

“It was very annoying and made us quite angry. There are a lot of issues with bias,” Roderick said, referring to research that showed black people were more likely to be misidentified.

The group meets once a month to walk through different parts of London and it has been inundated with inquiries over the past few days.

“It would be interesting to wear it day to day and for it not to be too outrageous, for it to be more commonplace,” Roderick said. “But the speed that facial recognition algorithms learn means that you can’t find one design and use it for the rest of your life. At some point, it will learn that you are a face with cv dazzle. It’s a classic arms race.”

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