Is it THIS Serious? Hmmmm….
The future of privacy is looking grim. Artist Adam Harvey wants to design something about that.
For the past four years, Harvey has been exploring the possibilities of counter-surveillance fashion. His latest addition is a collection of clothes and accessories called Stealth Wear. The collection includes an anti-drone hoodie and scarf that are designed to thwart the thermal-imaging technology widely used by UAVs, and the OFF Pocket, a phone accessory that blocks all incoming and outgoing communication from your phone. Harvey’s earlier work includes the CamoFlash, a set of powerful LEDs that trigger when it detects camera flashes, turning the tools of the paparazzi against them, and CV Dazzle, a experiment with makeup and hair styles that will confuse facial-recognition systems.
In total, it’s a body of work that pushes against a future of total surveillance. Like the best fashion, Harvey’s work is at once practical and wearable and an artistic provocation.
“Total surveillance is a term I first heard from Anders Sandberg during this presentation at a Tabula Rasa conference,” says Harvey. “He predicts that by 2050 a country can execute total surveillance on a population for .01% of their GDP.”
What does he mean by total surveillance? “I asked him what he meant — I was also confused — and it basically pertains to recording audio/video 24/7 of every citizen. This was based on some research he’s done.” It’s Moore’s law for the surveillance age. As sensors get cheaper and more ubiquitous, and as we wire ourselves and our spaces up with cameras and other gear, it becomes harder and harder to not record everything.
Here’s a quick tour of the contemporary surveillance landscape. A father accidentally spies on his daughter with a smart meter; the iPhone’s location database accidentally tracks everywhere you’ve been; Facebook users’ public info turns out to be great for stalker applications; more and more companies are coming out with life cams; and everyone’s getting a drone.
Wired chatted with Harvey about the story behind his pieces.
Wired: How did you get into countermeasure clothing in the first place?
Adam Harvey: I aestheticize something that I’m passionate about. Privacy and surveillance are defining who we, how we dress, and how we act with each other. I’m very interested in seeing how this will play out in terms of how we treat other’s data and how we balance security with privacy. As the security industry grows, we’re forced to define and redefine what privacy means. Also, each new generation will have a different idea of what privacy means.
I don’t want the next generation to grow up thinking that giving away all of your personal data for free is the norm. If we’re on track for total surveillance, then good countermeasures are essential. These don’t have to be limited to fringe interest groups either. Counter surveillance could become the norm. The OFF Pocket is designed with everyone in mind from high schoolers to hackers to politicians. We’re all being tracked, but some of it can be controlled.
Wired: How did the Stealth Wear project come about?
Harvey: Stealth Wear started as an experiment using the fabrics I was researching for the OFF Pocket. I did research on thermal surveillance and was very interested in where it was going and at some point realized that metalised fabrics work as a shield against thermal imagining cameras. I was able to get access to a thermal camera and started testing swatches of fabric. When I realized that it worked well enough, I got in touch with my friend Johanna Bloomfield and she came up with the hoodie design. Everything was pretty much still an experiment at this point. Then we showed the hoodie to Andrew Green from PRIMITIVE. He loved it and decided to include it and make it a major part of this upcoming show. Originally this show was to be based on work from CV Dazzle and a few other counter surveillance art projects. This whole idea of stealth wear line was very emergent.
Wired: Any specific symbolism in a hoodie and a scarf or simply practicality?
Harvey: I wanted to do a hoodie because it assumes that there is a high enough demand for anti-thermal imaging clothes that one would want to add style. I’m creating the future I want to see: people wearing stylish clothes that block surveillance and enhance privacy. Functionally, the hoodie is designed to thwart thermal surveillance from above and is wide enough to block a vertical over shot. The hood is exaggerated to provide additional face concealment.
The scarf is intended to be worn as a hijab. It is also inspired by the rationale behind the hijab, “the veil which separates man or the world from God”, replacing God with drone. The interior color is the the inverse color scheme of the heat map gradient.
Wired: Is there a particular reason you’re intervening at this particular scale?
Harvey: I see a future where individuals are more in control of their privacy. And I see fashion as a vehicle for getting there. Conformity is what surveillance wants and fashion is anti-conformist. And I think the decision to conform or not happens on a personal level. The projects I’ve been working on act upon surveillance in a way that exploits a vulnerability and makes this vulnerability accessible through using something ordinary (hair, makeup, or fashion) in a non-conformist and legal way.
So far, I haven’t had any problems with legal issues. In fact, I’ve been invited to a biometrics conference to discuss my work and really enjoy meeting people in this field. Even someone from DARPA recognized my work and seemed to enjoy it. Ideally, these projects, which take place at a personal level, could function to influence people at a higher policy-making level.
Wired: To what extent do you think these clothing/tools will actually be effective?
Harvey: I designed the OFF Pocket to be inconspicuous. The “Anti-Drone” Hoodie is more or less indistinguishable from other high fashion. Hiding in plain sight if definitely the goal. But what we define as familiar versus conspicuous changes everywhere we go. In Williamsburg I see people riding 10 ft tall bicycles and it’s normal. On the NYC subway, crazy people scream and no one even notices. In Penn Station there are soldiers with automatic weapons. These are all normal.
What I think we don’t realize is that surveillance is taking place almost everywhere we go now, and it should be normal for us to dress in a way that is conscious of this. At some point, it might be weird to not have an OFF Pocket or a thermally reflective garment. Or, maybe just unfashionable.
The collection is being hosted by PRIMITVE in London and opens to the public on January 18.