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Yes, Anti-Facial-Recognition Glasses Are Coming

The perfect gift for that person in your life who wants to take their privacy protection offline, too. But is it just window dressing?

Yes, Anti-Facial-Recognition Glasses Are Coming
[Photo: Flickr user Hendrik Wieduwilt]

Has the encroachment of facial-recognition software made you a little uneasy? Are you concerned that cameras are tracking your every movement in public? Are you not ready to commit to makeup-based camouflage? Well, the National Institute of Informatics (NII) of Japan is rolling out a first-of-its-kind commercial product next year that might be for you.

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The Privacy Visor, first unveiled in 2012, are glasses that reflect light in a way that confuses facial-detection software. More specifically, the glasses disrupt the patterns of light and dark spots around the eyes and nose that allow computer algorithms to recognize that a face is even present in the frame. Although the glasses don’t guarantee complete privacy, project lead Isao Echizen says tests have shown it to work over 90% of the time.

Joshua Marpet, a prominent digital forensics expert and CEO of the information security company BiJoTi, confirms that while some cameras can beat this trick, the vast majority would have trouble picking out a face behind the glasses. He says a good analogy for its effectiveness could be the license plate covers some people have recently been using on their cars to confuse license plate readers.

“They worked enough that in certain areas they became outlawed,” he adds.

To illustrate the challenges of tricking all the different cameras out there, which have very diverse capabilities, Echizen says he was forced to tweak an earlier design that was fully transparent to the human eye and featured LED lights (see above video). That version quickly became obsolete when newer cameras such as those of the iPhone 5S and 6 emerged with the ability to more closely mimic human vision. The new version of the Privacy Visor, while more effective than the previous one, slightly impairs vision and could make activities like driving dangerous–because the small reflective dots used to confuse the algorithms can feel a bit like looking through a piece of mesh. Still, Echizen is upbeat about the commercial prospects of Privacy Visor and its projected release date of June 2016.

“We are working to make it more fashionable,” he says.

Privacy advocates, however, are less than psyched. “It’s not a positive development, it’s a sad commentary on the lengths that people need to go to in order to escape facial recognition,” says Susan Grant, director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at the Consumer Federation of America. She adds that what’s urgently needed in the U.S. is a comprehensive legal privacy framework such as the one already in place in Europe, and not a technology arms race.

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Marpet cautions that while the device would help shield the privacy of people’s faces, there are limitless other opportunities to impinge on our privacy.

“Right now, if you walked into any of a dozen different chains of stores in the US, there’s a system installed which tracks where you are and who you are by your phone,” he says. “While a camera can watch and see where you are, the fact is that we are all starting to carry more and more tracking beacons, more and more activity monitors.”

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About the author

(Primarily) Istanbul-based journalist writing about international politics, business, technology, and innovation.

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