Battlegoth makeup versus facial recognition software...

Apr 02, 2010

In the halcyon days of the 80's, a fairly common trope of cyberpunk was people (usually background characters but occasionally a main character) wearing battlegoth makeup - funky facepaint that distinctively changes your appearance. Often it was described as a stylistic choice, not unlike what some media stars effect today though occasionally you see it at street level. Facial recognition systems are pretty primitive today but they're starting to be deployed by law enforcement and advertising agencies just the same to gather actionable information for later use. Right now eye tracking software is used to determine what keeps people's attention for how long to develop better ads and police agencies are looking into using it to track people of interest by analyzing securicam footage but as processing power grows and software becomes more capable it's going to turn into a hot technology in the next decade or so.

At NYU a grad student named Adam Harvey is researching ways of monkeywrenching these systems with those makeup styles. His findings are indeed interesting: asymmetrical patterns screw up facial contours sufficiently that image recognition systems based upon Viola-Jones type algorithms can't determine who the subject is, and might even skip over the subject as not being a person at all (which I would suspect to be a corner case). Designs that are too regular might not work as well for the purposes of privacy because systems might register type II errors and identify the subject as someone else entirely (which isn't always a good thing - have you ever wanted to be mistaken for Osama bin Ladin?) Interestingly, low effort techniques like this might really take off among the younger pro-privacy crowd if personal privacy doesn't fall too much farther out of fashion. Also, wearing funky makeup while out and about is pretty easy to get away with, probably much more so than other image jamming techniques; the aforementioned media figures make asymmetrical designs and nonsensical patterns not only popular but acceptable. Popular culture sets the fashion trends and after a short period of time people just accept them rather than try to suppress them (they way they would if people started, say, wearing masks as part of their everyday wardrobe).

Definite something to keep an eye on.