The World Cup in Qatar is a privacy nightmare. Across the eight stadiums, there are 15,000 state of the art facial recognition cameras, allowing security to zoom into any one seat from a central command centre. And while the state insists this is to keep fans safe from terrorists, hooligans, and – uh – pitch invaders waving plastic rainbow flags, it all sounds a little bit 1984 for my tiny Western brain.
Luckily for me, a crack team at VICE’s creative agency Virtue and their partner Brandhouse have been working on a cutting edge solution: face paint. Yeah, you heard me. As well as being a staple at international football tournaments, face paint can also – in theory – be used to evade detection from facial recognition algorithms like the ones used in Qatar. So could football fans at the World Cup protect their privacy by slapping the colours of their nation’s flag on their cheeks? With a little help from our clever creatives, I tried to find out.Our first step is to come up with a face paint design capable of confusing Qatar’s facial recognition technology. Good news for us, then, that over the last few years there’s been eye-catching reports of juggalos avoiding police surveillance thanks to their black and white face paint. Truly, an inspiration to us all. But how and why does this work? In an age where our mobile phones know more about us than our best mates, you might be surprised to hear that anti-surveillance techniques can be as simple as wearing a face mask, sticking out your tongue (this is why you’re encouraged to look like a moody fucker in your passport photo), or, you guessed it: painting your face like a member of the Insane Clown Posse.
“If you apply anything that hides, masks, or changes the features of your face, you improve your odds of avoiding recognition,” cybersecurity expert Joseph Steinberg tells me, “but geometric patterns are especially effective in breaking up the continuity of the face.”Fun fact: A similar technique was used by the British during World War One. Instead of faces, though, the Royal Navy painted their ships with complex geometric shapes in contrasting colours. This “dazzle camouflage” made it harder for their enemies to track their ships, and later provided the inspiration for artist Adam Harvey’s pioneering CV Dazzle project. If it’s good enough for the Royal Navy and the juggalos, then it should be good enough for football fans in Qatar. With all this in mind, the team at Virtue and Brandhouse got to work on a prototype pattern by feeding images of juggalo makeup into an AI generator, then asking the programme to reimagine the makeup on the faces of international football fans. The aim is to blend the geometric shapes of juggalo face paint with the distinctive designs and symbols of national flags.
Next, in a montage that I can only imagine looks like something out of Dexter’s Laboratory, each iteration through an online facial recognition programme. Some work, some don’t... After assessing which patterns give the best results, a design is finalised and pinged my way for some more not-so scientific tests.
After spending an hour painstakingly applying their design onto my face, the results are striking: I look like a cross between an EDL foot soldier and Darth Maul. But more importantly, Apple’s Face ID no longer recognises me. Neither do any of Instagram’s face effect filters. An online facial recognition tool even mistakes me for a 47-year-old woman. The only tool that works as intended is Snapchat’s dog filter. But if those terrifying botched face swaps from a few years ago can teach us anything, it’s that Snapchat’s algorithm recognises (or mistakes) pretty much anything as a face. So our prototype works on most consumer tech – could I use it to go incognito at the World Cup in Qatar? I put the question to Steinberg. “In theory, yes – if you know enough and you do enough, you can confuse the systems in Qatar," Steinberg says. "That said, if you made an actual effort to obscure your face with a complex pattern, you’re probably going to get stopped by security. Privacy laws in Qatar are less stringent than in the West. The assumption you should have, if you’re going to the World Cup is that the government can and will track you." So can face paint help you avoid being spied on by the state? Yeah, in theory… But if you try it at the World Cup in Qatar, you might end up on the next series of Banged Up Abroad. Big Brother vs. juggalos and football fans? Think we can safely call this one a draw. @snakedenton