Encrypt your face and foil the NSA

Encrypt your face and foil the NSA

Summary: Surveillance cameras are everywhere, backed by sophisticated facial recognition software. But you can defeat them, the NSA and whoever else is monitoring you. Here's how.

TOPICS: Storage

How you look, like your fingerprint, is write-once, read-many data., a fact that surveillance systems use to track you in person and online. But what if they couldn't see you?

The "they" of course is the computer vision (CV) software that automagically detects faces and then zeros in on the details. CV scans a photo or video image looking for faces, scoping out eyes, noses, ears, hair and chins.

The most common CV systems uses OpenCV, a free CV library from Intel, so that's the enemy you're looking to defeat. It uses a combination of image sampling, transformation and processing techniques - among many others - to enable a computer to "see".


A modern version of dazzle is used on pre-announcement cars to hide the details of its design while testing on public roads. Do you recognize this BMW? 

CV Dazzle

New York artist Adam Harvey has been investigating techniques for making CV not see a face. Dazzle is based on an older technique first used in WWI to protect ships by making it hard to estimate their range, speed and heading.

He recommends a number of strategies, including

  • Avoid eyeshadow and mascara - it makes your eyes easier to recognize.
  • Use makeup that contrasts with your skin tone in unusual directions.
  • Obscure where your eyes, nose and forehead intersect, a key region for CV.
  • Obscure part of your eyes and the elliptical shape of your head.
  • Make sure your look is asymetrical.

Here's a couple of examples, courtesy of Mr. Harvey:




Naturally, these looks have a downside: they're offputting for human-based facial recognition. People will think you're weird.

In a piece for Atlantic magazine, writer Robinson Meyer tried wearing CV Dazzle makeup for several days. He reports that the makeup made him "impossibly noticeable" and changed how strangers reacted to him - and not in a good way.

The Storage Bits take

There's a reason photo ID exists: your face is unique AND people are very good at facial recognition. Now that every picture of you - such as you slurping beer from the belly button of someone at a club - can be tied to you, maybe we don't want to flash our ID everywhere we go.

Your body is a form of storage beyond your DNA. Your face, fingerprints, height, coloring - eyes, skin, hair - shoe size and more are "personally identifying information" as privacy policies note.

As the surveillance state wraps its tentacles ever-tighter around our lives, individuals have fewer and fewer ways to stay private. CV Dazzle shows us a new strategy for foiling at least part of our brave new world.

Comments welcome, as always. I can see coastal hipsters going for this, but will it play in Peoria?


Topic: Storage

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  • Perfect Disguise

    Hey Everyone,

    We should all wear Inspector Clouseau disguise kits that Peter Sellers used in the hilarious Pink Panther movies.
  • This will only delay recognition by about 90 seconds or so.

    The computer will flag the face as unmatched, and then a human will take a look at the image and do a manual match with the database.
    • Manual match?

      Facial is no where near 100%, its good enough for general use and generally if one camera does not get a good likeness of your face and can't make a match, its figured that the other 10 in the area will. Some are even smart enough to create meta data such as "blond hair", "ears pierced", etc. Those might pick up a cover up such as a surgical mask like they wear in Asia.

      But unless its a very small group such as a building, no human is looking at this unless there is a hit.
      Rann Xeroxx
  • got me some old Groucho Marks get ups around here somewere

    Add a pirates eye patch and or bandana and Rambo face paint ... should be good to go. :-)
  • Pretty funny

    But not going to turn myself into John Merrick just to fool a camera :)
  • How about

    How about big sunglasses?
    Buster Friendly
  • Encrypt your face and foil the NSA

    Takes too much effort to do it this way which is why I put on a hat or headband with 3 infrared LED's in the center so that it blinds the camera.
    • LED's

      It really works, even with ordinary LED's. Just bought a pair of protective glasses with one LED on either side. Checked it with my laptop and a digital camera (point and shoot).
      Was also demonstrated in one episode of "White Collar" with a suitably modified baseball cap; which actually inspired me to try this out successfully.
      • This is probably the right strategy...

        That is, trying to make all faces look the same to the facial recognition software, rather than trying to make them unrecognizable (and thus potentially unique and something that needs special people intervention).
        A quick Google doesn't show me any research on that approach (which the "blind the cameras" technique is taking to its ultimate end), but it seems like that approach might have more merit than being unrecognizable.
  • I think you give them far too much credit

    And yourself far too much value. What's it like living in that sci-fi fantasy playing out in your head? Did you go to those brain butchers at Recall?
  • Glitter

    The horrible foil "icicles" used in days of old could be strung from the bill of your ball cap, allowing for free air movement. A similar batch of thin acetate/glitter strips could also do the trick.

    As with any disguise, it may make identification difficult, but following your movements may actually be easier. Then you get caught. Then you are served with divorce papers. But, you should have seen that coming because of the cold roast beef on your plate.
  • Playing in Peoria

    As a resident of the area... not likely. It is, after all, Central Illinois, not California.
    • Population shifts

      Don't worry, that phrase no longer references Illinois. With the way the population has shifted over the years, they're now talking about Arizona when they ask "will it play in Peoria?"
  • Yea I like this stuff I could not make this up.

    Oh yea real stealth here. Slide past those nasty "them" cams without being noticed.
  • Groucho

    I visited the medical clinic I had been going to for 37 years and was told they needed to take my picture for identification purposes. I told them if they didn't know who I was after 37 years I didn't want them treating me and was told it was a new government requirement. Because of my attitude and unshaven look the lady said we could do it the next visit. The next time I came she brought out the camera, I put on a pair of Groucho glasses with the little moustache and she took my picture.

    I would use some sort of disruption technology if it were available and didn't make me look like a Google glasshole. Either that or some kind of marking only the camera could see so I could have kiss my butt displayed to the camera but not offend people I met. Unless they were wearing a camera device to take my picture for identification or other nefarious purposes in which case I would be so concerned about offending them. Lets face it those cameras are not there to make your day or life better. They are data collecting tools to be used by someone for what ever they want to use them for. Law enforcement using the data to help solve a crime or provide protection is all good but stalking, behavior tracking or making videos without the permission of those pictured or filmed are not. I swear if I see one more You tube video of me scratching my butt I will start wearing pants in public.
    • F

      Producto Endorsair
  • Disguise?

    I'm a decent law abiding guy, but if things were that bad that I needed to disappear, I can think of a dozen ways to do it without looking like a refugee from comic-con.
    Robert Christopulos
  • Retro?

    Makes me think of early 80's New Wave styles. Looks like it's time to haul out the old Devo suits. :)
  • They Already Know What You Look Like

    There are a few issues here.

    First, companies can work to convince you that you really WANT facial recognition. It will make it easier at the airport. You will be able to use Google Glass to spot your friends. They will all convince you that putting up your photo is a good thing for you.

    Next, there will be an issue as there is now) with Muslim women wearing burkas so all you see is a carpeted human being. It may be a religious right but some states don't like it because a face is part of identification.

    Next, look at your driver's license or state issued I.D. card. This is necessary to get on an airplane these days. Or look at the photo for your passport. They already know what you look like.

    Finally, we have cameras all around us. They are everywhere. Does anyone doubt that the police can look at any surveillance footage and pinpoint exactly who you are?

    How about companies that push facial recognition as a security measure for companies? First, they wanted our Irises, now they want the whole face. Soon they will want a photo of our backsides.

    Big brother is here to stay, I guess. Too bad that license plate spray doesn't work. We could spray that all over ourselves.
    • backsides

      I like the backsides idea. I am getting on in years and no one checks mine out anymore so if I wore it as a mask, no wait that won't work. I have a tattoo of my firsts wife's name on my backside so I can't put that where anyone could see it without her realizing I didn't get it removed when we divorced. Dang I hate when sentiment bites you in the backside like that. I have to admit it was one of my less intelligent ideas. So back to wearing a mask except in the places that have made wearing a mask illegal. Maybe one day they will come up with face changing devices and all this will be moot.