In a surveillance society, stealth clothing is no longer the stuff of sci-fi shows or the preferred apparel of the cartoonishly paranoid.
You may find the idea of wearing Google Glass on your face while strolling the streets preposterous. And you may find it unsettling that Google’s face-worn camera continues to contribute to a surveillance society. But do you feel so strongly about this that you’d wear your own set of face recognition algorithm-blocking goggles or a hoodie top that’s specially designed to conceal your identity from CCTV?
The hoodie is an actual project by artist Adam Harvey. It’s part of a line of similar pieces of clothing he’s created, and it’s made of metallic reflective fabric not unlike the protective material used in some layers of firemen’s uniforms. The idea is that the material smears out or otherwise conceals your body’s thermal output and that can confuse overhead surveillance cameras—like those you sometimes see used on late-night cops reality shows. Speaking to the New York Times, Harvey, who’s design professor at the School of Visual Arts, noted that while we’ve heard about personal counter-surveillance measures like this for a while in sci-fi, “the science-fiction part has become a reality.” He also suggested that “there’s a growing need for products that offer privacy.” Some of Harvey’s work is clearly influenced by the political situation in countries like Afghanistan and the development of drone surveillance and warfare, like his “anti-drone Burqa.” But in a video promoting his work, he’s careful to note the clip is for “artistic demonstration purposes only.”
Harvey has also designed a purse that emits extremely bright LED light in the infra red spectrum, designed to flood many sorts of digital camera sensors so that the person carrying the purse is obscured in the imagery.
This technique is similar to an invention from Japan’s National Institute of Infomatics, which may be considered the “anti” Google glass because it’s eyewear that emits IR light that confuses face recognition algorithms. It’s such a simple technique that you can even find online guides for hacking a plain baseball hat into a camera-fooling infra red light source.
And of course there’s a huge effort underway to develop real-life cloaking materials. For now the technique works for radio frequency signals in some circumstances, and the technique is even well known enough that a 3-D printed stealth material has been created—but one day the devices will work for visible light. They’re generally being pursued for scientific or military applications, for obvious reasons, but just like the metallized fabric Harvey used in his creations, this sort of tech will one day bubble down to consumer level.
The big question is whether consumers today or in the future will actually be concerned about privacy to the extent they’ll wear a counter-surveillance outfit. Recent controversy about the Prism project suggests that there is a growing concern about the potential of government surveillance of innocent civilians…but it’s impossible to tell if that means we’ll all be shielding our NFC cards in Faraday cage wallets, switching off Google’s or Facebook’s face recognition services, sporting anti-recognition eye ware or donning a drone-defeating tinfoil hat.