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Silver Lining Surveillance: Finding optimism in facial recognition

In today’s landscape of fearmongering, it’s easy to see technology as the enemy. Smartphones are rotting our brains, the blue light is making us depressed, and Facebook is stealing our data. Everyone’s current favourite villain is facial recognition technology, simultaneously a symbol for the surveillance state and a cute thing to play with on Snapchat. I work frequently with facial recognition in my own artistic practice, and one of the questions I am often asked by audience members is this: Should we heed the warnings that our country is headed in a dystopian, machine-led direction and try and fight it, or should we accept our fate? My answer, always, is that we have reached a point of no return and need to find another option.

Facial recognition is fast becoming a staple in social media. Facebook has been using face-tracking data to allow users to tag friends in photos for a while, but more prominent applications of facial recognition are bringing the ethical implications to the forefront - in particular, its use in apps such as Snapchat, Instagram and FaceApp which use filters to alter users’ appearances using augmented reality. FaceApp had been trending at various points in 2019 due to its gender-swap feature, and more recently because of its ageing filter that allows users to see how they might look later in life. Concerns over the app’s use of facial data arose when several US Democrats called for users to delete and boycott the app, citing its ties to Russia and the fact that photos taken in FaceApp are subsequently stored in their database, where they have license to use it perpetually, worldwide, and royalty-free. FaceApp, however, maintained that their terms and conditions are no different to other similar facial filter apps, and that the only reason for this public outcry is the association with Russia.

There is also a movement to ban facial recognition as a government tool. The website Ban Facial Recognition compares the technology to nuclear weapons, saying it “poses a threat to human society and basic liberty that far outweighs any potential benefits.” I would argue that despite the obvious invasion of privacy that facial recognition offers, it is far too late to attempt a ban. This data is out there and there is no turning back. The public have willingly ignored the small print and offered up their data to large corporations, seemingly indifferent to the inevitable consequences. What we must do now, is not to accept our fate and indulge and the doom and gloom narratives pushed by skeptics, but to instead make the technology work for us.

It is important to remember that facial recognition, like all technology, can be beautiful when used in the right way. For artists, it has been an invaluable tool for creating art that can be accessed in a global, immediate and interactive setting. Many visual artists have started rolling out Instagram filters in their own style. Ines Alpha made waves on Instagram with her use of ‘3D makeup’, with abstract shapes in photo-realistic quality appearing around models’ faces. The results are stunning, and it has inspired an entire movement of CGI makeup and experimental filters.

Google Experiments is gradually building up an impressive showroom of coding experiments, some of which also use facial recognition. A More Better Life is an interactive film that reads the viewers facial data through the webcam as they watch, and uses head movements to change the perspective of the film. The Creatability collection employs the use of facial recognition and body tracking to create music and drawings and to visualize sound. In 2019, I had also performed two works which both use facial recognition to create music and sound. For performers, facial recognition is a brilliant tool, being both open source and free, and also accessible for those with limited movement. The team behind Creatability worked with disabled people to make sure these tools were truly accessible by allowing multiple input options. This project is only the beginning; we have the ability to use this technology to truly liberate people and provide creative freedom, and we should take this opportunity.

Going forward, it is crucial that we teach everybody how this technology works, how powerful it is, and how their data can be used. Open source tools such as Facetracker, which uses OpenCV2, can be a great way to show simply how facial recognition works and how facial features are detected. It is also helps people to see how free and widely available this technology is. Once this knowledge is in the hands of the public, it is no longer a matter of an unknown entity sweeping the rug out from under us; instead we are on a level footing with the enemy, and that knowledge will become confidence.

For a worst-case scenario, it is useful to know to successfully avoid facial recognition. People are becoming more and more fearful about how their data may be used against them, especially with concerns over racial bias in facial recognition. Groups are already striving to find creative and effective methods of going undetected.

Juggalos (fans of the group Insane Clown Posse) are famously able to evade facial recognition technology due to their commonly worn face makeup which obscures the facial landmarks typically read by the technology. Black, angular paint around the lower half of the face completely redefines how the jawline is identified, thus causing the facial recognition technology to incorrectly interpret the shape of the face and locations of landmarks. However this may only work with technology utilizing light contrast to identify features, and will not help Juggalos evade technology such as Apple’s Face ID which instead uses depth sensing. CV Dazzle takes the concept seen in Juggalo makeup and makes an intentional effort to create digital camouflage in the form of hair and makeup styles. Additionally, Privacy Visor and Reflectacles help wearers fly under the radar of CCTV by reflecting light so that recognition systems will not be able to use light contrast to identify details. While none of these methods are everyday solutions, it is a glimmer of hope that this technology is not impenetrable.

In short, we are not doomed. There is still plenty of time to change the narrative, and to make facial recognition the thing of beauty that it absolutely has the potential to become. Collective efforts are already making a big cultural impact on the way facial recognition is perceived, and if we can find a way to encourage the public to see the positive aspects of the technology, that impact will deepen. All we have to do is face the issue with determination, confidence and optimism.

If anything, the use of clown makeup to trick facial recognition technology is definitely enough to lighten the mood.


Rosa Francesca is a writer and artist who has been previously published in a range of art publications. She is @RosaFrancsArt on Twitter and on Instagram.