One of my favorite jokes from the late standup comedian John Pinette comes within the opening minutes of his 2006 special, “I’m Starvin’.” He talks about how he played a woman in the musical “Hairspray” and how he had to shave his eyebrows for the role.
“When you have no eyebrows, people don’t know what’s wrong,” he says, “but they’re pretty sure something ain’t right, and ‘maybe we should take the next elevator, honey.'”
Indeed, as Robinson Meyer, an associate editor at The Atlantic, recently found out, small changes in appearance can cause havoc with people’s reactions. Not long ago, Meyer painted his face with black and white makeup, and he parted and positioned his hair so it covered his left eye and obscured the bridge of his nose.
Meyer’s mission was not to gather looks from the public. Just as Pinette shaved his eyebrows for his career, Meyer intended to study the technique of CV Dazzle — avant-garde hairstyling and makeup designs made specifically to fool surveillance cameras that use sophisticated facial recognition software. The looks he received were simply hazards of the job; however, they provided information regarding human culture that underscores years’ worth of upbringing and social norms.
The name CV Dazzle, according to the technique’s official website, comes from the World War I naval camouflage, also named Dazzle, “which used cubist-inspired designs to break apart the visual continuity of a battleship and conceal its orientation and size.” Back in the time of WWI, Dazzle fooled the naked eye; in a similar manner, CV Dazzle is working to fool facial recognition algorithms.
The site says such algorithms rely on the look and spatial relationships between key facial features, so breaking them up with makeup and hair designs can trick the algorithms into thinking that what they see are not human faces.
Meyer found out that it is not always easy to conceal one’s self correctly. A person’s hair must be draped in such a way that it conceals the bridge of the nose and also covers at least one eye. Additionally, he found that black and white face paint on his cheeks worked better than blue and white. He speculates that this is because black is darker than blue, but he does not expand on the point.
He said he used a facial recognition algorithm in his iPhone to test out his makeup designs. Out of the five times he completed his own makeup, he only fooled his phone three times. CV Dazzle provides some tips about how to best conceal one’s face: apply makeup that contrasts with skin tone in unusual directions, obscure the nose bridge, obscure at least one eye, change the elliptical shape of the head, and provide facial asymmetry.
The degree of difficulty regarding trying to fool facial recognition software likely increases with commercial-grade software and hardware. Although Meyer’s methods may have fooled his pocket-sized device, it is unclear how well he would have fared versus techniques more advanced than to which he had access.
Beyond all that, though, Meyer may have found out more about the human condition than he did about makeup application. “The very thing that makes you invisible to computers makes you glaringly obvious to other humans,” he remarks among his closing statements.
To people, he made himself extremely visible. Even if cameras could not detect him — consumer- or commercial-grade — humans sure could. That made him a bit of an outcast — to a point where he wonders: if he was to have an asthma attack or be otherwise incapacitated on a public street with people nearby, would anyone stop to help him?
The makeup made him “impossibly noticeable,” he said. But did it make him so strange that he would not find help in all the people who noticed him?
Image courtesy of an unknown author via Wikimedia Commons