As video surveillance technology becomes both increasingly common across the world and more sophisticated, some people are finding ways to counter it. Activists who want to protect their privacy are using make-up, clothes and accessories to confound facial-recognition technology. In Russia, an activist and artist who specialises in anti-establishment art performances created an online community around these techniques. Then she was arrested.
Thick black and red lines criss-cross the faces of young Russian men and women in a number of photos published on Facebook and Telegram. They’ve joined the ‘Sledui’ campaign, Russian for 'follow’. The artist and activist Ekaterina Nenasheva launched the campaign in February. She’s no stranger to shocking artistic performances and overt criticism of the Russian government.
"We don’t want to be caught in the lenses of video surveillance cameras without our consent. We don’t want these new technologies to take over. We use make-up to shield ourselves from surveillance and facial recognition for a few minutes, turning this make-up into a symbol of disobedience,” Nenasheva explains on her Facebook page.
The collective has published photos of different types of make-up on its Telegram channel, which is followed by more than 850 people. The movement also has its own chatbot – a conversation simulator – which gives out instructions for how viewers can do their own make-up, as well as explanations of different possible patterns: those that can actually confuse facial recognition technology, and those that don’t work at all.
A collage of photos shared on the Telegram channel.
This isn’t the first movement of its kind. At the end of January, the British movement Dazzle Club organised silent, choreographed walks in London around the theme of urban surveillance. Participants wore patterned make-up similar to the work by Sledui.
“You’re trying to obscure the natural highlights and shadows on your face. Cameras will reduce you down to pixels. They’ll pick up the bridge of your nose, your forehead, your cheekbones, your mouth and chin. So you have to flatten your face and obscure it, ” explained Georgina Rowlands, one of the movement’s founders, to Vice.
The British group suggests painting bold lines that alter the face’s geometry, dividing it up in order to make it difficult for facial-recognition technology to recreate your profile.
While the British group is able to meet every weekend in Greenwich, London, the Russian activists are less fortunate.
On February 9, Ekaterina Nenasheva published a new series of photos of herself wearing the distorting make-up – but this time she’s in the back of a police car.
“They arrested us yesterday for wearing this make-up, and now they are accusing us of having taken part in a non-authorised event – just for wearing it,” the artist wrote on her Facebook page.
The authorities let her and two other people wearing the make-up go after being detained for a few hours in a Moscow police station.