We're living in a golden age of surveillance. Security cameras record our movements on the street and in shopping malls, and drones may soon be keeping an eye on us with cameras that can spot a bird flying near a building from six kilometres up.
New York designer Adam Harvey decided to celebrate his involuntary photo ops by becoming invisible. Harvey and fashion designer Johanna Bloomfield have created a small clothing line called Stealth Wear, including a burka, that is intended to frustrate infrared security cameras and to raise awareness of increasingly sophisticated surveillance.
The garments, which also include an abbreviated hoodie and a scarf, are made of a flowing metallic fabric that reflects heat. Put on Harvey's burka, and it will prevent your body's "thermal signature" from reaching the eye of an infrared camera.
"You won't appear as a human to any automated thermal recognition system," Harvey says on the phone from his studio. Your legs will not be shielded, but automated cameras look for patterns, and most cannot deduce the presence of a body from two legs with no visible torso.
"I'm not so much interested in creating a 100-per-cent counter-surveillance solution," he says. "These clothes are proxies for generating something else, whether it's a conversation about privacy and responsible use of technology, or a policy change."
The fabric, which Harvey sourced commercially, is "about half silver, with some nickel to prevent corrosion. It's very light and wearable compared to copper or stainless steel, has a lustre to it, and is very 'flowy.' "
And the clothing is expensive: The burka sells online for about $2,370 at shop.primitivelondon.co.uk.
Harvey's garments are a dramatic reference to U.S. drone raids in Pakistan that have mostly killed non-militant civilians, according to a recent study (http://www.chrgj.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Living-Under-Drones.pdf) by Stanford University and New York University. Thousands of drones used for surveillance and missile strikes in Afghanistan are being returned to the United States, where a commercial drone industry is quickly forming.
"The market for drones is going to explode in the next decade," says Harvey, who also points to advances in multispectrum and ultra-high-resolution cameras. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. military's research and development arm, released details this week (http://rt.com/usa/news/surveillance-camera-drone-unmanned-001) of a 1.8-gigapixel camera, which will allow drones to see your face, if not yet record your features. The RCMP and other Canadian police forces are fielding or intend to buy surveillance drones.
Harvey's garments won't prevent you from being seen by a security camera that uses daylight, though the burka's facial cover-up and the forward-reaching hoodie can conceal your features. CV Dazzle, a previous Harvey project, takes counter-surveillance into the realm of makeup, using standard cosmetics to repattern the face and thwart automated facial recognition.
His most popular offering so far, however, is the Off Pocket, a soft cellphone case that uses metallic mesh and the principle of the Faraday cage to block all signals, in or out. Why, you may ask, would you need that, when you can just turn your phone off?
"I use an iPhone, and it takes about 40 seconds to power it down," Harvey says. "I find that as soon as I go into my phone to turn it off, I find an excuse to open another app and spend more time in there."
In short, if Stealth Wear is about putting a veil over the eyes of Big Brother, the Off Pocket is about keeping watch over oneself. Either way, as is often the case, the cure for too much of one kind of technology turns out to be another.