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The future of anti-surveillance fashion



Mashables series examines how today’s challenges will change dramatically in the near future.


Face masks are an essential public health tool today. Going forward, they could be the ultimate anti-surveillance fashion statement.

Strangely patterned sweatshirts, reflective glasses, wild complexions. Over the past decade, computer scientists, artists, fashion designers and hobbyists have developed clothing that makes it difficult for surveillance systems to identify people.

So far, these creations have mostly been experimental or have only been worn in niches.

Thanks to the special circumstances of 2020, the idea of ​​averting or undermining fashion surveillance has a moment.

“Obviously, we were presented with a very interesting coincidence in history, namely that face masks are more acceptable than ever,”

; said Kate Bertash, a cybersecurity researcher who runs a website called AdversarialFashion.com. “They’re necessary for public health reasons, and people are making sure you avoid facial recognition when you’re protesting.”

The coronavirus pandemic has made the wearing of face masks widespread and socially acceptable, while unprecedented participation in protests against police brutality has raised awareness of the surveillance state and demonstrated the importance of protesters protecting their identities.

Police have met protests with drone, helicopter and aircraft surveillance and fed them into a federal system that allows law enforcement to use the footage for future investigations. You have already used face recognition to. In response, widespread guides on how to protect your digital identity have been distributed. MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez advised protesters to wear nondescript clothing and leave smartphones at home or switch to airplane mode to avoid persecution.

At the same time, different camps have previously worked together in anti-surveillance ways, and more amateurs and students have joined the bandwagon. Some face masks now contain images that confuse surveillance systems – and that have the potential to go mainstream.

“I’m excited to see what people put on masks,” said Bertash. “With face masks in particular, we don’t even know what can be done to undermine face recognition by covering up part of the face.”

Accessories of the future

Cihang Xie, Fifth Year Computer Science graduate student at Johns Hopkins University seeks to develop computer vision systems that recognize images more intelligently. He also accidentally created anti-surveillance fashion tools for protesters.

“Just don’t use it for bad things,” Xie said when asked how he would feel about protesters using his research to protect their identities.

Along with several colleagues at US and Chinese universities, Xie recently spoke about creating a UPC (Universal Physical Camouflage) attack, or a framework to create patterns that cause object recognition systems to misclassify what they are looking at. The paper shows how easy it is to fool these systems and ultimately make the AI ​​smarter by identifying (and patching) its weak points.

The researchers put their samples on clothing and showed that they could trick a computer into believing a person was a potted plant or a bird. Others have done similar research: Tom Goldstein, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland, programmed an algorithm to create an “invisibility cloak” that makes people invisible (not just misclassified) to an image recognition system. But while Goldsein mostly sticks his cloak on T-shirts and sweatshirts, Xie’s research team also puts their computer foolish images on face masks.

“Wearing a mask is already an occlusion, and that’s already a tough question for facial recognition,” Xie said. “With more patterns, especially controversial ones, the problem definitely becomes a lot more difficult. I don’t know of a solution yet. “

Goldstein sees this as an exciting strategy.

“Now that you have the option to wear a mask, you can cover so much more of your body,” Goldstein said. “The more of your body you can cover with controversial patterns, the more susceptible to these attacks.”

Bertash has also played with contradicting patterns and face coverings. She attaches images of fake license plates to backpacks, shirts and other items in order to provide ALPRs (Automatic License Plate Readers) with junk data. This is known as a poison attack, which intentionally makes surveillance systems less accurate. She’s now making fake license plate covered face masks and buffs.

“What I’ve learned in the last year and a half to dig really deep and understand is that this is still a very open area of ​​research,” Bertash said. “People will find that, especially in the next five years, no one has figured out exactly what computers see when they look at someone’s face.”

The extent to which the wearing of masks undermines facial recognition systems is not yet known. While some reports show wearing masks is, others show that there are, or that the people who make face recognition technology make it.

However, being gold still sees the wearing of masks as the future of the anti-surveillance fashion, both for its ability to become widespread and for its effectiveness in undermining systems.

“Conflicting things like coats and clothing will improve in accuracy, but I don’t think they will ever be as reliable as just covering your face,” Goldstein said. “For me, the potential of masks in public spaces is the greatest opportunity for counter-surveillance.”

Go this way

Nina Zhong, a senior at the Parsons School of Design who studies fashion, faces a problem: how to make anti-surveillance shoes that are comfortable enough to wear.

“I haven’t fully completed this yet, but I wanted to create heels that were asymmetrical,” said Zhong. “I think the problem with that is that it might be awkward to go a different way, but it might be worth the difference.”

Zhong says she took inspiration from Bertash and rival fashion designer Adam Harvey to prevent the collection of “soft biometrics” like height, weight, and hair color. Since some systems can identify a person by their gait, Zhong is trying to develop shoes that change the way a person walks.

Nina Zhong is trying to figure out how to change a person's gait with their shoes.

Nina Zhong is trying to figure out how to change a person’s gait with their shoes.

In the past she felt “alone” in this work. But now that her friends and classmates take to the streets and combine skills like protest tactics and fashion design, she feels things are changing.

“I have friends who have real life experience, such as protests,” said Zhong. “I get more feedback myself for these types of events. When people work together, it’s much more effective. “

Bertash was thrilled to hear that a fashion student was inspired by her work. She felt that the ability to resist surveillance was becoming more widespread and accessible.

“The big moment I’m seeing right now is that artists in particular are realizing the mechanics of how these things work,” said Bertash. “Once they find an experimental environment, many people can have the same ability to play with things in their closet.”

The trend has expanded beyond the fashion world. Academics reach out to more people and also build on each other’s work.

“People who were interested in surveillance used to be in different camps,” Goldstein said. “AI, security and system databases, people who work on the interaction between humans and computers. These three academic communities have never spoken to each other before. But now everything suddenly comes together. ”

Researchers and designers are also making their work more accessible. Bertash’s website has a section that teaches others how to carry out their own poison attacks. The stealth mask designer, Xie, posted his designs and research on GitHub for anyone to download. While he did not intend to turn it into a tool for protest, he is not averse to the idea – and even sees its advantages.

“If you want to protect yourself, you don’t want your government to know your information. You should know about this technique,” Xie said. “Anyone who wants to use it, our paper is there. You can download it for free. “




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