FREEDOM, IDENTITY, AND ART IN AN ERA OF SURVEILLANCE
None of our lives are truly private. Is “Big Brother,” the NSA, always watching us?
It wouldn’t be possible without data. Bright, multicolored advertisements flash across our screens, across most of the websites we use everyday, from Facebook to Gmail, Instagram to Snapchat, using cookies to track our behavior and then pester us about shirts, shoes, or other recently viewed products. These smart, targeted advertisements have enveloped my own Facebook page, each ad resulting from careful algorithmic sculpting of my online reality.
Every piece of our data is a tiny snapshot of our lives. Highly sophisticated facial-recognition algorithms, such as Amazon Rekognition, are able to use that data to find a face within a morass of pixels. With cloud technology, facial recognition can now estimate a subject’s age range, gender, and other variables, complementing biometrics like iris recognition, retinal analysis, and fingerprint scanning.
For FIGMENT artist Adam Flynn, invasive data collection was something many weren’t even remotely paranoid over. That is, until CV Dazzle. Computer Vision Dazzle (CV Dazzle)–a project from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP)–directly responds to algorithms’ invasion into our private lives. Adam Harvey created CV Dazzle as a technology that doubles as art, because each brushstroke has to be strategically placed on a person’s face in order to confuse state-of-the-art algorithms used in surveillance software.
“There are certain points about a way a face looks,” Flynn explained about his 2015 FIGMENT submission, Razzle Dazzle Face-Painting. “Normally, makeup will focus on accentuating those features.” Ironically, CV Dazzle makeup is about covering those features, “making the face less distinctive, less identifiable.”
What is Dazzle?
Like a Cubist painting, CV Dazzle employs geometric shapes, sharp lines, and vivid colors.
These artistic shapes and colors are intentionally distracting–masking defined cheekbones, full brows, and other features usually emphasized in conventional makeup. Among the hundreds, if not thousands, of pixels in an image, algorithms locate the general symmetry between a human subject’s eyes, their nasal bridge, and even the shape of their lips.
“People have been doing Dazzle makeup for a while,” Flynn elaborated. He “wanted to bring the topic of anti-surveillance into [the mainstream],” complementing Harvey’s own work. Both Harvey and Flynn are concerned with how internet users seem aware of surveillance as a threat to privacy, but are unaware of its real consequences.
According to international privacy expert Neil M. Richards, the real threat of surveillance is diminishing–or even extinguishing–our civil liberties, especially those enshrined in the constitution. Take, for example, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Article protects freedom of expression, freedom to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.”
Ever since Snowden’s media-shaking 2013 leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post, Americans have become undeniably aware of the growing surveillance state. A surveillance state that used to lurk in the shadows of the public imagination, like something out of Brave New World or 1984, was now newly tangible and real.
In the World Economic Forum’s 2012 survey—just before Snowden’s leak—around half (50.2%) expressed a belief that “the government monitors what people do on the Internet.” Even more disturbing, the survey revealed 60.7% felt “people who [use the Internet] put their online privacy at risk.”
Richards elaborated that the danger of surveillance to civil liberties isn’t only about fundamental rights, but a threat to democracy. Americans often take it for granted that we have the right to consider, research, and even adopt a wide variety of political and social stances. However, when the NSA or any state agency has the right to monitor our communications and collect vast amounts of our data for unknown purposes, our fundamental intellectual and democratic rights are potentially undermined and sabotaged.
Who has the right to our data?
Who has the right to our data? One piece of data seems pretty innocuous. However, as part of the seemingly endless amounts of data collected on each and every one of us, that one snapshot suddenly becomes a very complete image of our personalities, desires, interests, and opinions.
When Adam Flynn brought Razzle-Dazzle Face Paint to FIGMENT in 2015, the topic of anti-surveillance art was particularly hot in the Bay Area. The CV Dazzle method, however, spans decades and generations. Its creator, Adam Harvey, was originally inspired by a type of “camouflage tape on [World War] I ships,” Flynn noted.
Like Flynn and Harvey’s dazzle makeup, the camouflage employed “a lot of jagged lines and a [patterning-defying] forced perspective.” Dazzle makeup is unique, not only in its obvious resistance of modern surveillance techniques, but also in its accessible style. You don’t need to be a fan of Cubist art or a security expert like Neil Richards to appreciate Dazzle paint.
In making the human face’s most distinct features less so, Flynn’s project seems to illustrate the length people need to go to accomplish relative autonomy and privacy in a hyper-technological era. By wearing Dazzle makeup, a person can hide from machines, but they draw extra attention from other humans during the course of daily life.
Engaging the mainstream
“One of the things we wanted to do is make our project less about traditional security culture,” Flynn elaborated. After all, face-painting booths are a staple of childhood favorites like state fairs, carnivals, and circuses. FIGMENT’s casual and family-centric environment provided an ideal opportunity for Flynn to test whether his version of anti-surveillance art was approachable and interesting enough to the broader sphere of attendees.
More often than not, the issue of surveillance or anti-surveillance art remains the niche of researchers, security experts, and some artists. Flynn said, “There’s [something] about the [usual] security culture that’s making it only for [these] cool kids.” In an effort to include more people in the project, Razzle-Dazzle Face-Painting invited random members of the community to engage with the concept. “It [increases] the reach so it’s not only about targeting the cool kids,” Flynn said.
One of FIGMENT’s core goals is to bring together different members of the community. Some are drawn to the event for its friendly, cooperative art culture, while others seek it out as a platform for creative, individual expression—protected by the very same 19th Article if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course, concepts need not always be so weighty. “FIGMENT is about the possibility to make [your] art felt among the broader community,” Flynn said.
Thought-provoking art often requires a little discomfort. Wearing CV Dazzle or Razzle-Dazzle Face-Paint will undoubtedly garner strange looks. Both twist accepted patterns around everyday life, since leaving a face-painting booth with strange black-and-white triangles on your face undoubtedly stretches public trust.
Despite how odd a person might feel while in dazzle makeup, wearing and creating the disguise is a tangible tool to grapple with feelings of powerlessness in a surveillance state. By actively challenging what makes many collectively uncomfortable, artists absorb necessary risks to defend the public’s right to free expression.
Art also makes us pause to consider what kind of future we want for newer generations of thinkers and doers. “We need to start thinking about the future in a way that we want to see it develop,” Flynn said. Immersive participatory art is one of those ways we can start thinking of the future. “The best way to arm yourself isn’t just painting your face, but having an [active] local government, and getting involved in the community.”
For most of the younger kids who ventured up to Adam Flynn’s booth—reminded of state fairs, full of twinkling lights and whimsical fantasy—Flynn’s Razzle Dazzle designs were just odd kitty-cats. If a person looked closer, however, the strange “cats” appeared more and more like purposive triangles, such as those intended to confuse facial-recognition software.
While Dazzle makeup is primarily technological, it’s also inherently social: like most art, it becomes whatever the viewer wants it to be. For some, the makeup is just a matter of cats drawn on cheeks, but for others, the makeup is a powerful tool for voicing political commentary. Luckily, FIGMENT has space for all of this: As long as you don’t bring the NSA along with you.