- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Scientists say they’re preparing to release a “Privacy Visor,” an over-the-ear contraption that’s worn like ordinary eyeglasses but modeled to make it difficult for facial-recognition technology to identify whomever is underneath.

The Tokyo-based National Institute of Informatics (NII) has tried to release privacy visors in the past, but a prototype put on display in 2013 relied on bursts from nearly a dozen LED lights that are invisible to the eye but trick surveillance tech.

Now the NII says it is readying the release of a new model that uses a specialized (but unnamed) type of material, affixed to a titanium frame, to reflect and absorb light, which reportedly fooled smartphone-based facial-recognition systems nine out of 10 times during development.

“We are often told not to unveil our personal information to others, but our faces are also a type of an ID. There should be a way to protect that,” NII Professor Isao Echizen told The Wall Street Journal’s Japan Real Time blog, adding that the latest model “is the world’s first product” to use a new type of technology to take on spy software, and in the form of a sporty, even fashionable look.

What’s more, this offering isn’t expected to weigh too heavily on consumers’ wallets either, reportedly coming in at around $240.

But as clothing and accessories aim to counter facial-recognition programs, the algorithms that run the software used to identify individuals also are gaining ground.

NEC Corp., an international biotech group that boasts being among the world’s top suppliers of facial-recognition program, NeoFace, said its software has recently been upgraded to become 28 percent more accurate than before.

“Faced with ever-increasing threats, as well as the need for improved customer engagements and loss prevention, public safety agencies (such as law enforcement, border control, immigration) and enterprises around the world are increasingly turning to facial recognition, a highly reliable and accurate identification method,” Raffie Beroukhim, vice president of NEC Corp. of America’s Biometrics Solutions Division, said in a statement.

Adam Harvey, a New York City-based artist, has dabbled in similarly designed wearables for years, and in 2013 released a line of countersurveillance “stealth wear” that included anti-drone garments and pockets that can prevent radio frequencies from penetrating clothing.

In the case of the Privacy Visor, Mr. Harvey told The Washington Times that the LEDs appear to exploit a vulnerability that exists in certain types of security cameras that lack infrared cutoff filters. Since the product only works on the infrared spectrum, he said, a camera that is not sensitive to certain light would still be able, in theory, to identify a wearer without complications.

Nevertheless, he added that an increase in spying evidenced across the board may get consumers to stock up on clothing and accessories designed with privacy in mind.

“I do believe anti-surveillance fashion and wearables have a chance at becoming mainstream,” Mr. Harvey said, adding that he expects a “tipping point in culture when designs that may seem eccentric now will become normalized.”

“Constantly being watched over by mass surveillance, whether it’s government or corporate, can cause anxiety … I see anti-surveillance design as a field that explores … and hopefully overcome, the challenges of living in total surveillance societies,” he continued.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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