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This Light Bulb Confuses Smartphone Cameras To Protect Your Privacy

Researchers have developed a new light that can protect locker rooms and stage performances from omnipresent smartphone surveillance.

This Light Bulb Confuses Smartphone Cameras To Protect Your Privacy
[Source Images: University of California-San Diego/University of Wisconsin-Madison]

When is the last time you were in a locker room, changing, when someone pulled out his phone? Probably yesterday. Of course there’s a sign saying not to, but it’s almost unavoidable. Cameras have become an omnipresent threat to privacy in the age of smartphones. Wherever there’s communication, there’s also the potential for surveillance.

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But now, University of California, San Diego, researchers have figured out a solution to block cameras in locker rooms, live theater performances, and any other artificially lit environment. It’s called LiShield. Featured on IEEE Spectrum, it’s a smart LED light that can make a room glow for the human eye, but flicker in a distorting light pattern at high frequencies beyond our vision. While this distortion is imperceptible to people, it confounds the greater visual acuity inside cameras, convincing their shutters to over- and underexpose the picture frame simultaneously. The effect manifests as a zebra pattern that can even distort color.

With facial recognition systems on the rise, artists and activists alike have built all sorts of hacks to confound cameras. Everything from glasses to makeup to masks to textile patterns have been used to provide a degree of personal privacy in the modern age. Clearly, we’re reaching a social inflection point, where real research dollars are being invested in techniques to regulate and thwart invasive camera tech.

As for LiShield: The distortion is far from a perfect blackout. Anyone who is actually changing under such a light would be crossing his fingers that the bars line up perfectly to protect his modesty. But the technique can vastly impede recording image quality. Plus, the distortion can also be programmed, like a barcode, which companies like YouTube could theoretically scan to recognize pirated videos of rights-protected content, like movies, being uploaded to the service. (To further complicate the idea–researchers also point out that a smartphone programmed to the proper filming frequency could shoot video under the privacy lights without any distortion. That means CCTV security cameras could film a place, even when everyday people could not.)

[Image: University of California-San Diego/University of Wisconsin-Madison]
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the lights scaling to public spaces anytime soon. While researchers are confident that the technique can scale, they’ve only tested it with a single LED bulb. Plus, it could be instantly thwarted by any brighter light–including the sun, which means this could never work in outdoor spaces during the daytime.

However, LiShield is a fascinating idea with some real promise–especially when compared to other so-called “smart” products. Most internet-of-things devices are simply digitizing something we can do manually, like turning down a thermostat through an app rather than through a dial. LiShield offers a unique function that wasn’t possible before. Could GE sell a smart light bulb with such a premise? Would the enterprise market be interested in designs to increase security?

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Either way, there’s an appeal here for everyone. Just because people spend time in a public space doesn’t mean they want their presence publicized. Yes, we’ve reached the era when everyone really will be famous for 15 minutes, but it would still be nice to have some say as to when that happens, and what for.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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