The Privacy Arms Race

The National Security Agency (NSA) is listening in to every phone call. Closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras are seemingly in every businesses and on every street corner. Police cars have cameras that automatically scan the license plates of other vehicles they drive by. Surveillance is so pervasive that we must accept the fact that privacy is dead.

Or not. Doomsayers will declare the death of privacy but the truth is privacy is an arms race. This has always been the case. When aerial surveillance came into its own so did camouflage canopies and hidden shipyards. Criminals kept tabs on the movement of beat cops so their activities wouldn’t be spotted and now surveil the location of CCTV cameras for the same reason. Electronic forms of communication lead to the development of taps, which lead to the development of encrypted electronic communications.

The privacy arms race is alive and well today. As the State and corporations utilize more surveillance technologies markets are springing up to offer countermeasures. One market that is starting to dip its toes into modern counter-surveillance is the fashion industry:

Last spring, designer Adam Harvey hosted a session on hair and makeup techniques for attendees of the 2015 FutureEverything Festival in Manchester, England. Rather than sharing innovative ways to bring out the audience’s eyes, Harvey’s CV Dazzle Anon introduced a series of styling methods designed with almost the exact opposite aim of traditional beauty tricks: to turn your face into an anti-face—one that cameras, particularly those of the surveillance variety, will not only fail to love, but fail to recognize.

Harvey is one of a growing number of privacy-focused designers and developers “exploring new opportunities that are the result of [heightened] surveillance,” and working to establish lines of defense against it. He’s spent the past several years experimenting with strategies for putting control over people’s privacy back in their own hands, in their pockets and on their faces.

Admittedly many of the fashion trends and clothing shown in the article look silly by the average standard. In time counter-surveillance fashion will either begin to take on an appearance to appeals to our sensibilities or our sensibilities will change to view this counter-surveillance fashion as fashionable.

Using fashion as counter-surveillance is as old as surveillance itself. Spies always try to dress to blend into their surroundings. Street criminals often choose a manner of dress that is unlikely to catch the attention of police. Undercover police select clothing that doesn’t scream “I’m a cop!”

Privacy isn’t dead. Far from it. It’s true that surveillance technology appears to have the upper hand for the time being but counter-surveillance technology will overcome it and then the cycle will repeat itself.