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Pop around Town : Anti-surveillance fashion art

【明報專訊】There has been a lot of attention given to facial recognition technology recently. Advanced consumer industries have created retail shops without staff; some use facial recognition checkout technology to find out the identity of the registered customers to confirm payment. Government offices have used it, along with fingerprints, for security purposes. In China, Singapore and some other countries, facial recognition algorithms are being used to monitor traffic, find missing persons and maintain public order.

Those of us who feel uncomfortable about this increasing encroachment on our privacy may find a new kind of fashion art interesting, if not encouraging, in resisting the sophisticated surveillance technology.

A male model's face is painted with thick, pigment-rich make-up in various shapes reminiscent of Pablo Picasso's artworks. A female model has various sizes of diamond-like stones glued to her face. A young woman wearing an ordinary-looking cap pulls it out, and a few short cloths appear from the cap and hang across her face. But the cloths make up the face of an old lady. A teenage boy gets a new punk hairstyle with long and stiff strips of hair hanging across his face, forming a kind of prison bars. These are some of the examples of make-up and hairstyle created by fashion artists. We can call it anti-surveillance fashion art created to confuse facial recognition algorithms.

For example, Berlin-based artist Adam Harvey created Computer Vision Dazzle — or CV Dazzle — in 2010, to prove that thick make-up painted in garish shapes across the face can prevent most facial-recognition algorithms from accessing the wearer's biometric profile. Harvey said that the project's name is a reference to a camouflage technique first used in World War One, when British ships were painted in zig-zag patterns to confuse German U-boats that were following them. He also paid tribute to the London "BoomBox" party scene of the early 2000s and tribal make-up from Papua New Guinea.

Besides facial make-up, some fashion designers have created clothes to confuse surveillance cameras. An online retailer Adversarial Fashion sells shirts, skirts and other garments with fake license plates printed on them. When traffic surveillance cameras spot them, they will help to inject "junk data" into a system that, in their view, is wrongly used "to monitor and track civilians".

In Hong Kong today, anti-government protesters have been wearing masks, goggles and hard hats to escape the all-seeing eyes of the authorities. Although masks have been banned under the emergency law, the new anti-surveillance fashion art may be more relevant than ever.

■Writer's Profile

John Erni is a university professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He thinks everyday culture is complex but always enchanting.

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