As we post photos of ourselves to social networks, algorithms are constantly mining our faces for data. Facebook, for example, uses biometric surveillance technology–the mathematical analysis of biological data– to identify patterns among millions of human eyes, cheek bones and chins. All of this information ultimately allows the Facebook to identify each individual person whose photo is uploaded to the server. But long before the computer is able to identify you, your mom or your best friend, the data exists as a jumble of composite features–a ghost-like mask that barely looks human at all.
Digital artist Sterling Crispin is now rendering this interim step in the facial recognition process with a series of 3-D printed Data-Masks. As he writes on his website, the project is his way of demonstrating “the aggressive overdevelopment of surveillance technology and how this is changing human identity.” As he explains, “these masks are shadows of human beings as seen by the minds-eye of the machine-organism.”
To make the masks, Crispin relies on biological data collected by other groups that are also investigating concerns about unconstrained facial recognition. One of these is Labeled Faces in the Wild, a University of Massachusetts Computer Vision Lab project, which has collected 13,000 name-tagged faces from around the web. Crispin feeds these photographs into facial recognition software and breaks them down into patterns and data points. In a sense, he is reverse engineering the process that Facebook uses to identify its individual users. He then prints out 3-D versions of the results. They are barely human–akin to lumpy topographical maps, like the surface of the moon.
“These masks are intended for use in acts of protest, poetry, civil disobedience, and shamanistic ritual by the citizens of our global village as it becomes further blanketed by techno-sphere,” writes Crispin. It’s “an act of political protest,” giving form “to an otherwise invisible network of control and identification systems.” So if you feel uneasy looking at Crispin’s masks, that’s the point. His work is a reflection of how we all should feel, knowing that forces beyond our control are, this very moment, mining our lives and our likenesses for data points. In the end, that’s all we really are to Facebook. Not human beings. Just zeros and ones.