Last month, an activist from the German art collective Peng! walked into her local government office in Berlin and applied for a new passport. “I probably have broken the law,” the woman, a chemist living in the Western Saxony region, told Motherboard, “but our lawyers don’t know which one.”
The woman applied for a passport using a photo of two separate people. Using specialized software created by Peng!, the collective merged the facial vectors from two different faces from two different images into one. Billie Hoffman (a pseudonym used by everyone in the Peng! Collective when talking to journalists), she told me how easy the whole process was: “Officials didn’t mention fraud at any point.”
Hoffman’s passport application was approved, and now she has an official German passport using the digitally altered photo. The photo is half her, half Federica Mogherini, an Italian politician who is the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. “The software calculated an authentic average of the faces and that's it,” Hoffmann recalls.
Hoffman’s passport is part of an artwork called “Mask ID,” a campaign that’s encouraging ordinary citizens to “flood government databases with misinformation” and disrupt mass surveillance programs. Ironically, the project is funded by the Bundeskulturstiftung, the German Federal cultural fund, part one was recently on show in Hamburg accompanied by a photo booth where anyone could upload their image and create their own distorted passport picture in an attempt to confuse government surveillance and circumnavigate facial recognition software.
“Passports are tools of oppression” another member of the collective who declined to give me their real name told me.
Peng!’s website outlines why the collective is concerned about governments stockpiling biometric data: “Every person who applies for a passport or ID card provides fingerprints and facial recognition data that are incorporated into government databases. Any database can be hacked—fingerprints and iris scans are already popular commercial goods that are pulled by companies.”
The German Interior Minister’s office told Motherboard that it does not use passport pictures to carry out mass surveillance.
“The use of passport photos to carry out criminal activity is strictly prohibited by law. Where this happens, authorities carry out an individual examination of passport photos. The use of photos in passports or identity cards for mass surveillance is not carried out as a result of this,” the office said.
In recent years, German parliament has tried to pass a variety of laws, creating additional powers about how and why the government can monitor people. In 2012, it tried to pass the Telecommunications Data Retention Law, forcing cell phone companies to store customers data and make it available to crime prevention units. But the legislation didn’t stand up after a local German court found that it is in violation of EU law.
That same year the German Parliament also passed the Video Surveillance Improvement Law; aimed at relaxing restrictions on video surveillance in shops, stadiums, and stations. “What the authorities are building here are instruments of totalitarian submission on a level never seen before,” said Hoffmann. “In Germany, we've just experienced an alt right president of the secret service, someone like Nigel Farage [leader of the UK Independence Party that spearheaded the Brexit vote]. So actually, these instruments already are in the wrong hands.”
The collective says it is concerned as to how lawmakers might retrofit legislation, meaning even if they’re not currently using biometric data for mass surveillance, they might be able to in the future.
It’s not the first time activists have used morphing software to allow two separate people to live under the same identity. In 2010, 12 members of the Czech art group Ztohoven merged ID pictures using similar software and set about living as one another. When asked about how the experiment went, Petr Žílka, a spokesman for Ztohoven, explained how they ended up in uncharted legal territory: “The municipal court has invalidated the criminal procedure and suggested to charge us with trespass. That was later canceled completely due to legislative ambiguity.” Even more interesting was how difficult it was for authorities to invalid marriage contracted during the project. “It took 8 years for the state to cancel it,” Žílka said. “The court didn’t have any legal tools to cancel invalid marriages executed in this way.”
Regardless, the German government seems unphased by Hoffmann's success. The Minister’s Office pointed out that the Mask ID project is a one-off, and therefore doesn’t undermine the integrity of the nation’s passports because a “systematic manipulation of photos” has not taken place. But the second stage of the project is set to challenge that. For phase two of Mask ID, also funded by the Bundeskulturstiftung, Peng! are encouraging artists to merge their passport pictures with people in Libya, to help migrants cross the border into the EU. When asked if anyone has actually participated, Hoffmann said "we’re working with journalists and migrants from Libya." In a game of identities, Peng! are determined to test the legal boundaries and see if they can turn passports from a “tool of oppression” to one that challenges to very idea of citizenship.