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Adam Harvey Fashioning a Way Around Surveillance

BY Sam Roudman | Thursday, June 5 2014

In 2010 when Adam Harvey began a project using fashion to sidestep facial recognition, the project wasn't always taken seriously.

"I didn't think it was too far away from reality, but at that time privacy was not a popular word," he says, "some people critiqued it as paranoid."

No one can make the same critique today. A recent report in the New York Times details the extent of the NSA's photo scouring efforts, it seems the agency is collecting "millions" of faces.

In his talk at PDF today, Harvey described how fashion might help subvert surveillance.

"It did start kind of as a fiction," he says of his efforts, which include ways to arrange hair and make-up to avoid facial recognition, metallic clothing to evade thermal imaging by a drone, and a phone case that blocks wireless signals and hence unwanted tracking.

"Now it’s...a reality," he says, "you may need to consider how to hide your face when you go out in public."

As his somewhat fanciful efforts to evade surveillance made the rounds, he found that ironically, his efforts to evade facial detection where being cited in academic papers looking to make facial recognition better, and by the intelligence community as well. To counteract the co-optation of his work, he opened the Privacy Gift Shop, a pop up store to sell his wares, and get people thinking about surveillance. It's in the process of moving to a permanent home next to the new museum. Harvey is also trying to build a community of artists, designers and hackers to do similar work.

"There’s a community, a loosely organized community called artsec right now, where a lot of people are sharing this information," he says. To help develop it further, he is working on a surveillance trend report to keep colleagues up to speed on what DARPA and the defense industry is doing to keep track of people. People who understand the strategies and technology employed to surveil them stand a better chance of doing something about it.

"The way that surveillance is working is that you’re already opted in," says Harvey "and you have to figure out how to opt out."