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How beauty is being used to fight back against facial recognition and CCTV


TextLaura Pitcher

As surveillance technology becomes more intrusive, artists are exploring different ways to obscure the five points of recognition – forehead, nose, each cheek and chin – with make-up, hair, and more

The average Londoner is caught on camera more than 300 times a day by cameras operated by public bodies, businesses, and individuals. This could be in the park, the shops, or at the station, with an estimated one CCTV camera for every 14 people currently in the UK’s largest city. That number is predicted to rise to one in 11 by 2025, making modern surveillance culture a growing privacy battle as surveillance technology continues to advance. 

To fight back, many people and projects are turning to make-up, something Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, says has the potential to throw off many of the algorithms. “Surveillance technology can be very powerful but also very fragile,” he explains. “Even placing small amounts of make-up could trick an algorithm into finding no match or a match with a different face.” This includes blocking out shapes in geometric patterns or obscuring key features such as the eyes or nose-bridge or experimenting with Juggalo clown make-up.

Artist Adam Harvey’s privacy concerns turned into activism and defiance through make-up. Harvey coined the term “computer vision dazzle” or “cv dazzle” when creating an open source anti-facial recognition toolkit that allows users to explore how fashion can be used as camouflage from face-detection technology. The idea behind CV Dazzle is simple: facial recognition algorithms look for certain patterns when they analyse images, so obstructing those patterns means obstructing the ability for the algorithm to recognise you. Techniques to do this include creating asymmetry, using hair to conceal the face (particularly the nose bridge), using make-up that contrasts with your skin tone in unusual tones and directions, and sticking gems on the face. 

Started as part of his NYU Master’s thesis in 2010, Harvey is currently working on the new software application to show how face detection and face recognition algorithms are analysing your face. “The future will look back on the present day and realise that the surveillance technologies developed in this century have profoundly impacted what it means to be human and what it means to dehumanise each other through technology,” says Harvey. “For CV Dazzle, I proved that make-up can have a significant impact on face detection and face recognition systems.” The looks created were tested and validated against Facebook’s PhotoTagger, Google’s Picasa, and Eblearn.

“(Anti facial recognition techniques) include creating asymmetry, using hair to conceal the face (particularly the nose bridge), using make-up that contrasts with your skin tone in unusual tones and directions, and sticking gems on the face”

As unregulated facial recognition technologies continue to make headlines, CV Dazzle is inspiring an increasing number of artists to experiment with the concept of make-up as a defence tactic. One of these is multidisciplinary artist Joselyn McDonald. Through her Mother Protect Me project, she experiments with how femme make-up and flowers can undermine facial recognition technologies, and created a YouTube tutorial last year. “Because surveillance harms womxn, through cyberstalking, spouseware, and facial recognition technology being used to detect identities of womxn in porn, I wanted to create femme looks to engage women (and anyone else interested in the rituals of make-up) with facial recognition topics,” she explains. McDonald sees her use of flora as a medium as having the added benefit of connecting viewers to the earth and forces us to think about how far we’ve come from “natural ways of being”.

To start the project, she applied flowers to conceal the key areas on the face (eyes, nose, mouth, shadows) over and over again to learn the patterns of what would undermine the algorithms. With the recent release of the extremely powerful facial recognition system Clearview AI, with a database of more than three billion images, she’s focusing more on diverse bodies for her next iteration of the project to reflect that surveillance datasets can misidentify black faces “Technology is very entwined with capitalism,” McDonald says. “It’s an extension of us, for better or worse.”

The Dazzle Club, a collaboration between artist-run organisation AiR and artist duo Yoke Collective would argue for worse. “We are interested in disrupting the arms race of technology that is changing the perception of London, and with the huge profits for software and hardware companies, possibly misleading us all into the possibilities of a fair and social future,” they explain. The intergenerational group of artists – Anna Hart, Georgina Rowlands, Emily Roderick, and Evie Price – are all based in London and began working on The Dazzle Club in August 2019, in response to the forced admission that facial recognition technology was being used by Argent on the King’s Cross Estate. The project hosts monthly artist-led silent walks through London with participants wearing CV Dazzle-inspired make-up looks, particularly black and blue geometric shapes that cross over or obscure the nose bridge.

“Artists have been at the forefront of political action, revolution and defiance throughout history. Throughout the project the intersection of political action and art has generated a powerful conversation about freedom and expression in public places,” the group says. “CV Dazzle offers an opportunity of individual creative expression through face paint, exploring the future of fashion, identity and independence.” 

“We are interested in disrupting the arms race of technology that is changing the perception of London, and with the huge profits for software and hardware companies, possibly misleading us all into the possibilities of a fair and social future” – Yoke Collective

Just as artists in general have been historically active in political defiance, make-up and face paint has always played a special role in the act of protest. From Joker make-up being used to protest corruption in Lebanon to South Koreans smashing their make-up to “escape the corset”, recently make-up has continued to prove to be a powerful tool in the face of political oppression. For this reason, CV Dazzle often goes beyond what’s necessary to attempt to conceal a face (with more simple tactics like face masks or sunglasses) to use creativity to oppose the technology and attract attention to the issue.

California-based artist Kel Robinson has been working on her own three versions of “anti-surveillance make-up” and learning about the software for over four years. The interest was sparked after a group of friends threw a CCTV underground party in 2015 with the theme of avoiding surveillance. After researching for the party, she began to experiment with her own make-up techniques and steadily gained a small client-base for this specific type of make-up. Now, she’s booked to do this style every few months, mostly for parties or demonstrations.

Robinson’s make-up techniques, which include applying lines, shapes, and colours over the five points of recognition that these softwares use: forehead, nose, each cheek, and chin, continue to develop as surveillance technology changes. She often tries what works by using the Facebook algorithm against itself, uploading photos with different shapes and colours until the software no longer requests to tag you. “The point of this make-up isn’t to “get away with crime”, it’s to protect ourselves from unjust surveillance and move more freely through the world without fear of monitoring,” she says. “The best way I’ve found to do this is with the use of electric blue (from Urban Decay), or black or white liner to create the illusion of shapes protruding from the face.” 

As surveillance technology continues to develop, so too must the make-up techniques used as an attempt to rebel from it.  As a civil rights lawyer and technologist based in New York, Cahn is only too aware of the city’s “growing use of increasingly invasive surveillance tools” at a state and local level. He says that there are no sure-fire ways to combat one of the most expansive facial recognition systems in the world, including make-up. In fact, some Chinese artificial-intelligence companies have announced that their technology can identify people even when they’re wearing face masks amid the coronavirus outbreak. Starting the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project a year ago as a way to push back, his greatest concerns for surveillance culture are that the technology is “biased, broken, and fundamentally threatening to an open society.” Cahn explains that error rates are much higher for women and women of colour specifically, making surveillance tools threatening to “basically anyone that isn’t a middle-aged white guy.” 

Cahn warns that one make-up look will not work for every facial recognition product and every biometric tool. “You also have to keep in mind that there are other forms of biometric surveillance that are being rolled out at the same time,” he explains, referencing GAIT recognition (which analyses the way we walk) and infrared cameras (that can identify us based off our body-heat pattern). “While I’m hopeful that we will find new and create ways to push back on the ever-growing surveillance state, we urgently need comprehensive laws,” says Cahn. In the meantime, he says a pair of sunglasses or a baseball hat can also make many algorithms perform poorly (his project currently sells hats that say “I opt out”).

While there’s no denying that surveillance culture is a growing issue with many potentially invasive or harmful repercussions, Harvey says the concept of CV Dazzle is currently still too exotic for most people. This, he says, has the potential to change. “Camouflage was also once too exotic. Prior to WWI camouflage was used negatively as a term for hiding from the police, perhaps similar to how privacy is often discussed this century,” he says. “In the early 20th century it was considered socially unacceptable and deceitful. Now it is mainstream, socially acceptable, and fashionable.” With this in mind, and the fact that a privacy armour in the form of a bracelet already exists, make-up could be set to be the next mainstream and fashionable way to arm ourselves in the battle for personal privacy.

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