World War I Dazzle Painting

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WWI 'dazzle paint' fools face recognition scanners

Although it might seem a little bit like wearing a tinfoil hat to prevent the government from listening in on your thoughts, an artist has discovered a way to prevent computers from recognizing your face, or even to pick it out of a crowd at all.

Oddly enough, the technique used is nothing new, at least to the history buffs out there who study World War I or even World War II. It’s called dazzle camouflage.

If you’ve ever seen those fancily painted ships with wavy lines running back and forth in old photographs, it’s really the same idea. Back in World War I, the British wanted their ships to be hard to spot, which isn’t easy on the open ocean with nowhere to hide. So instead of camouflage, they opted for confusing paint schemes.

At the time, the visual rangefinders used to calibrate the artillery on an attacking ship required a spotter to use a machine and move parallel lines to bracket a target. The speed and heading of the target also needed to be estimated and fed into the range-finding mechanical computer.

The idea was that the dazzle painting, consisting of geometric shapes in contrasting colors, made all this difficult to do. Fake bow waves hid the actual speed of a vessel, and in some cases the fore and aft ends were hard to discern. It also made it so that ships might be misidentified due to their broken silhouettes. A destroyer might be mistaken for a cruiser, for example.

Fast-forward to today. Facial recognition scanners are used not only for access to certain government buildings but also at big events, such as at the Super Bowl, to look for criminals or suspected terrorists in the crowd.

Some people don’t like this type of passive scanning and feel that it’s an invasion of privacy. So one artist developed a way to use dazzle paint to prevent automatic scanners from recognizing your face, or even that you are a person at all.

Artist Adam Harvey did some experiments and found out that painting multicolored triangles under your eyes tricks most facial recognition scanners, so that they don’t recognize you as even having a face. He also did some experiments with various hairstyles to see if that would work but found that only the paint would reliably do the trick. That won’t get you access to facilities, of course, but it might help you avoid passive scans.

The problem with Harvey’s technique, called CV Dazzle, short for computer vision dazzle, is the same thing that plagued the dazzle ships of the world wars. It might confuse electronic scanners, but the dazzle paint also makes a person or a ship pretty obvious.

If you are walking around with big triangles painted on your face, you are probably going to arouse suspicion. The computers won’t notice you, but the guy with the gun standing nearby will certainly raise an eyebrow. I mean, it’s a bit less obvious than wearing a ski mask into a bank, but not by too much.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Reader Comments

Tue, Nov 12, 2013

Ok so how do you stop facial recognition when getting your dmv photo? It has to look natural and undetectable by the camera person

Wed, May 2, 2012 Keith Milwaukee

I do not think the statement "...the computers won't notice you..." is entirely accurate. What occurs is that the facial recognition software will not compare the facial characteristics against the exemplars in the DB. A properly designed system should detect a human like figure and human like motion. What is required is that a non-human like face trigger a notification because this is unexpected.

I suspect that wearing certain types of eyewear and or headwear might already prevent facial recognition from working properly. Consider someone wearing flamboyant eyewear along the lines of that worn in the past by Elton John. I am certain that if painting triangles below the eyes can avert facial recognition so can wearing eyewear in the shape of large letters. Eyewear being a matter of personal taste is not likely, on its own, to result in a security stop. It will render the person remembered, but the memory will be faulty as the wearer is, in effect, openly disguised.

Wed, May 2, 2012 Mark Chicago

When are we in this country going to stop publicizing information that the "bad guys" could somehow use to get around security? I am all for free speech and the right of media to publish news, but "Loose lips sink ships" is still true. Yesterday there seemed to be a media frenzy to be the first to report the Commander-in-Chief was on the ground in Afghanistan. IMHO this is almost criminal. Charles - I did not know the founding fathers had scanners. But in reality, if there was a public gathering back then, and if they were looking for someone, they would have posted human scanners, and if a person was trying to hide their face, I am quite sure our Founders would NOT have ignored that person. Yes I agree that there is a line that must not be crossed, but I find that too many people want that line drawn so far away that it becomes impossible to do what our government is required to do, that is "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, PROVIDE FOR THE COMMON DEFENSE, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America"

Wed, May 2, 2012 Charles Kerr Hollywood, Florida

This is the most chilling line in the article: "The computers won’t notice you, but the guy with the gun standing nearby will certainly raise an eyebrow." My trying to bypass passive scans is considered a presumption of guilt which is the absolute antithesis of one of the founding principles of this country.

Wed, May 2, 2012 Walter Washington, DC

I don't thing it would stand out that much at a Greenbay game, just make it look like wedges of cheese. Besides, the guy with the gun will only react if you look like a specific person he is searching for. Last I checked there is no law against wearing wild makeup to a sporting event. Sounds like the software would be pretty worthless for Mardi Gras too. Of course, most days and most places this would make you stand out enough to get more attention than you really want.

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