Unidentified halo: Subverting mechanisms of surveillance through wearable technology.

The anti-surveillance wearable in action.

As recently as last week, new information has emerged suggesting that as many as half of all Americans are already included in a massive database of faces. Government reports have long confirmed that millions of images of citizens are collected and stored in federal face recognition databases. Police departments across the country use facial recognition technology for predictive policing. One major problem with these systems is that some facial recognition algorithms have been shown to misidentify certain groups of people at unusually high rates. There is also the problem of misidentifying a criminal — and how such mistakes can have devastating consequences.

Unidentified halo is a wearable hat that responds to widespread surveillance culture and a lack of biometric privacy in public spaces. The hat is intended to shield the wearer from facial detection on surveillance cameras by creating a halo of infrared light around the face. We imagined this piece as not only a fashion statement, but also an anti-surveillance tool that could be worn by anyone on the street who is concerned about protecting their privacy.

The project began as a subversive “kit” of wearable items that would allow the wearer to prevent their biometric data from being collected. Shir David and I were both frustrated with both the ubiquity and the invisibility of the mechanisms of biopower, from surveillance cameras on streets to fingerprint scanners at the airport. We discussed the idea further with several engineers at NYU and they suggested that if we were interested in combating facial recognition algorithms, we could create a wearable that shines infrared light on the user’s face.

For our initial prototype, we soldered together 22 IR LEDs that are powered by a rechargeable 500mAH lithium battery and monitored by a potentiometer, and then adhered the circuit to a baseball cap. The LEDs are wired along the bill of the hat and the battery is tucked into the rim. We agreed that the hat shouldn’t require technical know-how and the battery could be easily recharged.

Humans can’t see the infrared light unless they are looking through the feed of a surveillance camera, so the wearer won’t draw attention to herself when she wears it on the street.

How the wearer appears on the IP surveillance camera.

In the image above, the surveillance camera picks up a halo of light around my face. The infrared light consequently prevents Google’s Cloud Vision platform from detecting my face. When we ran the images through Google’s API, it not only detected Shir’s face but even offered suggestions of her emotion based on facial indicators. My face, on the other hand, went undetected.

Google’s facial detection algorithm doesn’t detect wearer’s face.

In terms of the user experience, we imagine that this hat could be worn by someone who wants a way to protect his biometric identity from being tracked while he’s in public without causing a stir. Since the human eye can’t see infrared light, the hat doesn’t draw any attention to the wearer.

The anti-surveillance wearable in action.

In future versions of the project, we think we would move the LEDs further down the bill of the hat so that it’s closer to the face and therefore would obscure more effectively. We also would ensure that the lithium battery is safely wrapped in a plastic enclosure so that there’s no way it could be accidentally punctured. We also need to address why the infrared light appears on some IP surveillance cameras but not others — and what kinds of cameras are in use on subway platforms or street corners, for example

And, of course, in the next iteration of the wearable we would take steps to improve the appearance of the hat in order to make it a viable product that could potentially exist on the market.

For more information, contact Rebecca Ricks at rr2562@nyu.edu and Shir David at shirdavid@nyu.edu.