This Simple Technique Made Me Invisible to Two Major Facial Recognition Systems

😎 +😷 = 👻

Thomas Smith
OneZero
Published in
7 min readJan 28, 2021

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Image: Design Cells/Getty Images

As millions of demonstrators took to the streets last summer to protest police violence and the killing of George Floyd, government agencies wasted no time in surveilling them with facial recognition software. As authorities began to recommend mask-wearing to combat Covid-19, many activists saw a silver lining. A major study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published in July 2020 showed that masks fooled certain facial recognition systems up to 50% of the time, suggesting that masks might offer protesters some level of protection from mass surveillance.

That got me wondering: What’s the best way to use masks and other everyday accessories to fool facial recognition systems? I decided to find out.

Gothamist reports that the NYPD used facial recognition (and possibly photos from social media) to pursue Black Lives Matter activist Derrick Ingram. There have been several reports of false arrests resulting from use of the technologies, especially against people of color. I’ve personally tested facial recognition tools like Clearview AI, and I’ve seen their power firsthand. Widespread use of facial recognition against protesters has led to calls to ban the technology, and legislative efforts to do so are underway across the country.

By adding a simple pair of sunglasses to my masked face, I had effectively made myself invisible to the system.

Unwilling to wait for laws that might regulate facial recognition’s use, many protesters and activists have begun to take matters into their own hands, devising clever ways to thwart facial recognition systems with elaborate “Dazzle” makeup, customized QR-code-like stickers, and tools to digitally cloak photos. Unfortunately, many of these strategies don’t work. And techniques like Dazzle makeup take a long time to apply and make users look conspicuous. Masks, on the other hand, are easy to take on and off and can be worn publicly without drawing undue attention to their wearers.

The NIST study analyzing masks’ impact on facial recognition systems was comprehensive, looking at 89 different facial recognition…

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