As protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement continue in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, protecting oneself against mass surveillance while rallying has become a pressing issue. Amid this increased emphasis on outsmarting facial-recognition technology, which experts say is more likely to wrongly identify the faces of Black individuals, the concept of anti-surveillance makeup is being shared as one of many ways to help protect one’s identity.
In 2010, artist Adam Harvey introduced his project Computer Vision Dazzle, otherwise known as C.V. Dazzle, which explored how saturated pigments painted in thick, Cubist-like shapes on key facial features could prevent sophisticated facial-recognition algorithms from accessing their biometric profile. The idea was a riff on British marine painter Norman Wilkinson’s dazzle-camouflage strategy, in which military ships were covered in dizzying stripes during World War I to warp the enemy’s perception of the type and size of their vessels, as well as the speed at which they were traveling. “Anti-surveillance makeup adds artificial objects to the face by using various colors to fool the surveillance systems,” explains Sasan Mahmoodi, a lecturer at the University of Southampton who specializes in computer vision. “The facial-surveillance systems are heavily dependent on edges on faces. These edges are produced by [facial features including the] lips, nose, and eyebrows. If you add man-made objects to the face, like makeup, to produce more edges on faces, then this might create problems for surveillance systems, and obviously the recognition rate might be negatively and dramatically affected.”
Since being introduced a decade ago, the technique has attracted interest among privacy campaigners, like London-based the Dazzle Club, a collective of four artists who wear camouflage makeup while doing silent walks to protest the Metropolitan police’s real-time facial-recognition cameras. Other creatives reacting to the system of surveillance include designer Antonin Tron, who for the Atlein fall 2020 show asked lead makeup artist Fara Homidi to create a look nodding to an anti-facial-recognition algorithm created by Grigory Bakunov, director of technology distribution at Russian company Yandex, in 2017. What resulted was a “slightly simpler, off-kilter version” of the futuristic designs that Bakunov introduced, according to Homidi, with jet-black and cobalt shapes blocked across the nose and one eye. “It’s very much a statement makeup, which doubles as modern-day battle gear,” she explains of her anti-surveillance makeup, which she posted on Instagram Stories as the protests began in New York City. “With cell-phone cameras being everywhere, it’s not difficult to imagine that a facial-recognition algorithm may be used against anyone who is participating in these protests, even if they have the right to do so.”
It was on Instagram that Philadelphia makeup artist Martayla Poellinitz first learned of anti-surveillance makeup, and she decided to do it as part of a #31DaysofMakeup challenge while working from home. “I first heard of C.V. Dazzle when my tech friend briefly mentioned it on her Instagram story,” explains Poellinitz, who wanted to add to the conversation around Black Lives Matter activism after George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent protests. In her post, Poellinitz takes her followers through the trial and error of her process, scrapping other looks for the final result: an abstract swirl of jet-black paint, winding down diagonally from the forehead, across one eye, cheek, the nose, and lips, and down to the jawline. She glued crystal decals on the shape and one eyebrow, in different sizes and colors. “Jewels seem to work the best for obstruction because of how light reflects off of them,” Poellinitz noted, having used facial-recognition tools as she was troubleshooting. “I wouldn’t call myself a techy person, but I’m very interested in the tech sphere and think we should all be aware of what it can do and where it’s going. Government and law enforcement are some of big tech’s largest consumers for facial recognition.”
Maryland-based multidisciplinary performance artist Maud Acheampong, who has garnered more than 7,000 followers on Instagram for their mesmerizing transformations, also discovered C.V. Dazzle on various social media channels. “The sentiment of anti-surveillance specifically is what intrigued me,” explains Acheampong, who shared their own interpretation of a C.V. Dazzle look—their face painted bright blue with a constellation of blurred shapes—alongside information on the anti-surveillance phenomenon and calls to action to support organizations such as the Minnesota Freedom Fund and the North Star Health Collective. “Historically, Black people are disproportionately targeted by surveillance technology, so it was important for me to emphasize that to my followers. The look was a way for me to artistically communicate the importance of anti-surveillance measures amidst protests.”
Many factors contribute to how successful anti-surveillance makeup is in fooling the system and safeguarding an individual’s identity, from the makeup-design elements to how advanced the facial-detection technology is. While experts like Mahmoodi believe anti-surveillance makeup can benefit protestors, he emphasizes that it has limitations and is by no means foolproof. Many organizers have also warned that makeup can worsen the effects of tear gas and caution protestors against its use. Even though anti-surveillance makeup—and the masks protestors are wearing for protection during the COVID-19 pandemic—can be helpful in confusing surveillance technologies, other body parts need to be taken into consideration. “Our ears are unique in the same way as our faces,” says Mahmoodi. “If a face is covered or disguised by anti-surveillance makeup and ears are not, then a person might be recognized by their ears. We are currently developing systems to do ear recognition, and the recognition rates we have achieved are as good as facial recognition rates.” This is why styling your hair or wearing hairpieces to block portions of your face—the ears, in particular—is beneficial to camouflaging your appearance as well.
Beyond just being one tool to block detection, C.V. Dazzle, by nature of how bold it is, helps spread awareness of why it’s important for Black Lives Matter protestors to shield their identities. It comes at a critical time as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented global surge in digital surveillance, according to researchers and privacy advocates around the world. “As more sophisticated facial surveillance systems are developed, more control over our lives is given to authorities to control and observe our very movements,” says Mahmoodi. “This might create ‘big brother’ issues in our societies, [and] these issues need to be discussed thoroughly by politicians, philosophers, journalists, and, more importantly, the public.”
Furthering the conversation around the mechanical eyes of power, C.V. Dazzle is a prime example of visual self-expression that skews powerfully political. “Makeup can be used as a mode of expression and defiance,” Homidi says. “There is an opportunity to be creative with your activism.” That being said, it’s important to proceed with caution, acknowledging that anti-surveillance makeup is far from infallible, especially as facial-recognition technology gets smarter and more widespread. Just as importantly, it should be done thoughtfully in support of the Black Lives Movement, particularly on social media.
“I think these types of artistic endeavors that call attention to what is happening right now are really important,” explains Acheampong. “But I urge people to put generative thought into their makeup looks if they decide to use them to boost movements like these. What is the post doing? Is it just a picture, or is it informative? If you’re not Black, ask yourself if you can boost the work of a Black creative that is already doing that. These are all ways to help if you don’t have the ability or safety to protest right now.”