Here's How To Protect Yourself from the NSA by Looking Completely Ridiculous

On the one hand you'll supposedly fool the facial recognition software you can't see. On the other, everybody you can see will stare at you.
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On the one hand you'll supposedly fool the facial recognition software you can't see. On the other, everybody you can see will stare at you.
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Photo: Nadine Ajaka

Nothing sells a product like fear, whether the threat is real or imagined. This is probably why an entire cottage industry has sprung up over the past year aimed at making a buck off skittish hipsters convinced the NSA is watching their every move. What would lead them, or anyone else, to believe this has of course been the hyped-up reporting of Glenn Greenwald and the often outlandish statements of his one and only source, Edward Snowden. This isn't to say that the disclosure that there is in fact an NSA and it does in fact engage in both domestic and foreign spying isn't legitimate and can't be worrisome when you understand some of the details. But irresponsibly claiming that the NSA is watching everything we do serves no purpose other than to incite irrational fear and in turn exploit that fear in the name of fame and fortune.

The concept behind "CV dazzle" has actually been around for a few years, but with the coming together of the Alex Jones Right and the Snowden/Greenwald Left into one giant pop culture meme it's now getting a second look. And that's what you'll be getting if you follow the CV dazzle strategy: a second look from everyone you run into, followed by a third and a fourth, followed by laughter or a quick move to the sidewalk opposite yours. What you won't be getting, though, supposedly, is your identity lit up like a Christmas tree in some NSA computer somewhere. This is because computer vision dazzle, which is really nothing more than a form of altering your appearance through specific makeup design and hair placement, reportedly fools facial recognition software.

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Put simply, CV dazzle makes you look ridiculous. Like ridiculous to the point where unless you're either at a post-punk revival show or you're a citizen of The Capitol, you're going to stand out in a crowd. Sure, the spy computers may have a hard time spotting you, but everybody looking in your direction and pointing at you would probably be a dead giveaway that something is up. The Atlantic's tech writer Robinson Meyer wrote a piece a couple of days ago in which he documented wearing the geometrically shaped makeup designs out in public in the streets of Washington, DC and the reactions he got. He says he was forced to explain to a lot of people that while he was interested in the soundness of the claims made by CV dazzle's creator, Adam Harvey, and is legitimately concerned with NSA overreach, the whole thing was really just an experiment. But it was one that left Meyer with quite a few questions about the potential side-effects of slathering odd-looking makeup all over your face, seemingly for no reason. Not as a fashion statement. Not with any specific purpose that's immediately clear.

One evening when I was wearing the dazzle, I was struck by a wave of throat-tightening nausea. I held onto a lamppost for support. Men in powder-blue dress shirts and women in pencil skirts passed on both sides. The entire scene did its best impression of the surreal, time-lapse movie Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, and I wondered: If I became sick—really sick—on the street would anyone help me? Or had the dazzle effectively opted me out of that? By making myself look strange, had I placed myself beyond the public trust?

Notice my assumption here: In the event of injury or illness, some kind Samaritan will inevitably emerge from the anonymous urban public and ensure my safety. This is not even an assumption but an actual experience: On two separate occasions during the past year, an asthma attack and a bad bicycle injury sent me to the sidewalk, and both times strangers stopped on their way and made sure I was fine.

This is partly, I think, because of who I am. I’m a white 20-something male, and (in t-shirt and shorts or button-down and pants) I look and dress the way society expects me to look and dress. Walking on the street, I don’t fret about getting stopped-and-frisked or assaulted.

Dazzle made me squeamish about not my safety—I was worried that the markings on my face would set me off as so “other” as to be beyond help, or to be pranking or play-acting my distress. It made me impossibly noticeable.

The fact that Robinson Meyer is a 20-something white male makes him really the perfect person to test out CV dazzle, since it's tough to imagine any other demographic being so concerned that they're important enough to be tracked by the NSA that they would actually walk around in public in urban camouflage designed to thwart its or anyone else's surveillance. The narcissism here is just staggering and it's worth mentioning that it must be fantastic to live a life so free from real threats that phantoms -- phantoms that you believe are targeting you specifically -- are all you have to worry about. That's the very nature of paranoia, particularly this newly minted brand of bullshit first world paranoia Snowden and Alex Jones are peddling. Wearing CV dazzle makeup and hairstyles, or wearing a baseball cap that supposedly blinds cameras to you, or carrying a cell phone sleeve that claims to prevent the NSA from tapping your phone and recording you, is really nothing more than donning a modern tinfoil hat.

By the way, when I say that Snowden is peddling some of this kind of stuff I mean it literally. During his most recent internet appearances from Moscow he's slyly lent his seal-of-approval to several brands of anti-surveillance software, using his newfound notoriety to cast himself as an online security expert and pitchman. It's a slight variation on the business model First Look Media has adopted, with one side of the company running as a non-profit and publishing Greenwald's terrifying sky-is-falling stories about how the government is watching you at all times and the other side selling you privacy software and tools, presumably to help you cure the disease it's just warned you is in the air and everywhere. It's an "exit through the gift shop" approach to journalism.

Because, again, nothing sells a product like fear.