The city of Chicago monitors its citizens through ~25,000 surveillance cameras—what the ACLU has deemed a "frightening number." These cameras connect to facial recognition software and government databases to reveal your identity. In 2013, Chicago police flexed the muscles of this system for the first time, and used it to identify and arrest a suspected purse snatcher.
Even to law-abiding citizens, that volume of cameras is overkill. In response, Chicago artist Leo Selvaggio has offered his own face to shield people's identities—from everyday pedestrians to active protesters—whether they’re in a public urban space or just shooting selfies for Facebook.
In an Indiegogo project dubbed URME (phonetically, "you’re me"), Selvaggio offers three ways to buy his face, all sold at cost. The first is as a photorealistic, 3-D printed and hand-painted prosthetic mask. At a glance, it appears real to cameras and people alike.
A second, "economic" option is a DIY paper mask kit. You can cut out Selvaggio’s visage from a sheet of paper, then stick it on your own face. No one will be fooled, but that’s not really the point. Here, Selvaggio’s face serves more as a Guy Fawkes mask—the mask of choice for hacker collective Anonymous. It’s an overt refusal to be recognized, and a visual icon that's recognized by many protesters. But facial recognition cameras, often working from low-resolution camera feeds, will just ID you (or your throng of people) as Selvaggio himself.
The third mask doesn’t live in the real world at all. It’s a piece of open-source software that uses augmented reality to stick Selvaggio’s face onto faces in a video feed, shielding you from such platforms as Facebook’s powerful facial recognition. (Ignore the fact that Facebook can probably triangulate who is in your crazy protest video by analyzing the viewing and share patterns of its multi-billion-person social network.)
Selvaggio’s masks make a point, even if they're an imperfect solution to an increasingly stifling surveillance infrastructure. In the best-case scenario, his masks become the face of protest across the world. Of course, that teaches our surveillance systems to pay close attention to whomever is obfuscating his or her own face with Selvaggio’s mug.
What would be interesting, and more importantly, scalable, would be if hundreds of thousands of people offered their faces for Selvaggio’s platform, allowing citizens to swap faces at will. It would build so much margin for error into these automated surveillance systems that they could become reasonably useless. But then again, I’m not sure that hopping on the El with someone else’s face each day really feels like freedom.
[Hat tip: Prosthetic Knowledge]