Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Fighting Back against 'Marketing Technology'

If you're planning on shopping in a brick-and-mortar Amazon outlet - slated to appear on UK high streets in the near future - you're likely to encounter the retail giant's checkout-free model that utilises face recognition and other technologies to eliminate the need for the cash register. But be aware that computers and sophisticated software are examining your physical appearance and using it, not only to eliminate having to checkout, but also to market to you.

Meanwhile, social media site Facebook uses facial recognition software to add tags of users to uploaded photographs. What seems like a very creative and helpful feature is gradually becoming more annoying to users with serious security concerns. But people are fighting back. Take Berlin artist and avid technology fan Adam Harvey. Concern over security and privacy has led Harvey to work on two projects designed to thwart facial recognition software.

Harvey’s first project, known as CV Dazzle, came up with ways people could change their physical appearance through hairstyles and makeup in order to foil facial recognition. Though the concept was indeed workable, there were inherent limitations that made it unworkable on a large-scale. So Harvey's second project aims to make up for what his first project lacked. His new offering is a line of fabrics with printed patterns designed specifically to overwhelm facial recognition systems.

"As I’ve looked at in an earlier project, you can change the way you appear but, in camouflage, you can think of the figure in the ground relationship," Harvey recently said in an address to the Chaos Communications Congress. "There's also an opportunity to modify the 'ground', the things that appear next to you, around you, and that can also modify the computer vision confidence score."

A Kind of DDoS Acid Attack

Data centre operators are familiar with DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks that can bring down a website simply by overwhelming servers with a constant barrage of crushing login attempts. What Harvey is trying to do with his fabric designs is very similar. The designs include carefully implemented marks that replicate different facial features meant to overwork and confuse facial recognition software. The patterns don't look like much to the human eye, but they are exactly what facial recognition software is designed to analyse.

Harvey maintains that his project is absolutely necessary in the digital age. Like many others, he's not convinced that a technology being portrayed as an innocuous marketing initiative will remain innocuous permanently. These kinds of technologies often find themselves hijacked by people or organisations that use them to invade the privacy of citizens and compromise their security. If Harvey has anything to do with it, facial recognition software is not going to be as successful as its creators want it to be.

Will software developers find a way around Harvey's camouflage? Perhaps, but that will just perpetuate the continuation of the cat and mouse game now being played. The game is just what technology has led us to.

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