Why Tech's Latest Fashion Accessory Is a Face Mask
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sunglasses just don’t cut it anymore.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Silicon Valley’s Fashion Week isn’t your typical gaga-for-Gucci spectacle. Instead of haute couture, futuristic LEDs light up the venue. Prêt-à-porter designerwear yields to 3-D-printed armor; drones, not razor-thin models with sky-high hair, zip down the runway. Here, the latest style-setting gadget isn’t some hyperarticulated bot or another impossibly tiny iPhone — it’s a “photobomber” hoodie (go figure) that magically makes you disappear in photos.
These days, being online can feel like living in a glass house. According to a 2016 report from Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, about half of all U.S. adults can be found in one of the many facial recognition databases maintained by law enforcement. But never fear — there are ways to game the system. In an age when privacy often feels more like a luxury than a civil right, a creative cadre of artists, designers and makers are fashioning a new kind of camouflage for today’s intrusive digital era.
The sad truth is we’re going to have no privacy when we leave the house.
Alex Kilpatrick, facial recognition researcher, Tactical Information Systems
The privacy strategy of the photobomber, which retails for $288, revolves around glass nanospheres embedded in the fabric that reflect light in every direction, leaving your face eerily backlit and indiscernible, says Chris Holmes, a DJ who designed the cowled garb back in 2015. In London, designer Saif Siddiqui sews crystal spheres into an anti-paparazzi scarf ($362) that, like the hoodie, reflects camera flashes to obscure the wearer’s face. Austrian Wolf Prix brought Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak to life as the Jammer Coat; it incorporates metallic fabrics that can block radio waves, cellphone signals and tracking devices, providing off-the-grid anonymity even while the wearer is strolling busy city streets.
You also can up the ante by taking Miami artist Jillian Mayer’s YouTube makeup tutorial, which teaches you how to place strategic slabs of black and white paint on your face to hide from peeping cameras. Amsterdam artist Simone Niquille’s bizarre-looking Realface Glamoflage T-shirts are emblazoned with the faces of celebrity look-alikes, which tricks facial recognition algorithms. Others are thwarting surveillance tech with infrared LED visors and lightweight metallic fabrics that absorb body heat to mask your thermal signature from drones. “Fashion is becoming more functional,” as the artistic industry focuses its creative energy on getting your privacy back, says Siddiqui, whose scarves have been worn by the likes of Cameron Diaz, Paris Hilton, the Jonas Brothers and other celebs.
Nowadays, going off the grid can seem nearly impossible, given that the intimate details of your life and heaps of your financial information are spewed across the internet. A 2012 study from the market research firm International Data Corp. estimates that by 2020, each person on Earth will have some 5,200 gigabytes of data on his or her cyber paper trail. Powerful algorithms at Facebook and Apple are rapidly getting smarter at picking your face out of a crowd with technology that detects the tiniest details of your irises and wrinkles. In 2011, Google acquired facial recognition software company PittPatt, which researchers have deployed to connect your dating profiles with your identity on other social media sites.
Experts like Alex Kilpatrick have a more dystopian view of these developments: “Unless you plan to wear a full burqa all the time, you’re never free from surveillance.” According to Kilpatrick, a facial recognition researcher at Austin-based Tactical Information Systems, facial recognition could be the death knell of privacy — and the end is coming fast. “The sad truth is we’re going to have no privacy when we leave the house,” Kilpatrick says. “The civility of going anonymous will disappear.”
But that’s where the world of art and fashion can step up to the plate, says Mayer, the viral makeup tutorial maven. “We have a lot of products that track, archive and record our lives,” Mayer notes. “I was feeling a bit overexposed.… How do you exist in contemporary times without the burden of existence?” Of course, the idea here is wildly counterintuitive. After all, attention-grabbing accessories, bold prints and provocative pieces of art are designed to make an impression, not get you ignored. But if you’re a celebrity, fugitive or, um, just a perfectly normal individual who likes keeping their privacy intact, people are starting to see the value in using clothes and makeup to help them disappear.
Unfortunately, there are many ways to circumvent these privacy strategies, Kilpatrick notes. For the hoodie, you can simply turn the camera’s flash off. As for the others, you can’t expect to go unnoticed when slathered with face paint or wearing a metallic trenchcoat that’s as bright as a light bulb. “If you’re trying to fly under the radar, all of that stuff is just broadcasting what you’re doing,” says Kilpatrick. Plus, tech moves fast: Biometric researchers constantly look for ways to improve their systems. By contrast, fashion is relatively slow, still stuck in last season. The simplest way to thwart current facial recognition systems is to look at your feet and tilt your head forward, making sure that cameras can’t get a clear look at your face. Or you can wear those “large, silly fashion sunglasses that hide your eyes and mess with the ability of the system to find the face,” Kilpatrick adds.
Even artist Niquille admits face-filled T-shirts may not be the perfect solution; as with all art, the greater purpose is to spark a discussion, and in this case, to take matters into your own hands. Even if you’re not sure how to hack Facebook’s fancy algorithm or tinker with a stealth proxy network, now you can champion your personal privacy with a new accessory or a light-reflective garment. But fashion is fickle by definition — there’s no telling if anything will stick.