"Off pockets" and "anti-drone hoodies": Personal privacy meets high fashion

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A New York-based artist has developed a range of clothing and accessories that can thwart thermal imaging cameras and instantly "zero out" mobile phone signals, making them untraceable, in an attempt to raise awareness of mass surveillance and explore ways for individuals to protect their privacy.

"I see counter-surveillance as something that should be more normal," said Adam Harvey, the artist behind the work, at a launch event last night in London. Displayed around the room were a range of hoodies, cloaks and burqas made of fabric interwoven with heat-reflective metals that limit or prevent detection by thermal imaging cameras, as well as the "off pocket", a small wallet that blocks all signals to and from a mobile phone, making it impossible to trace the location and use of the device.

Some of those present at the event were sceptical about the ability of the fashion world to contribute to the protection of privacy. One attendee - who, apparently conscious of his privacy, wished to be referred to as RW - said that fashion "will take anything that will forward its own agenda and use it."

At the same time, he noted a concern over privacy and surveillance issues - "not so much with drones," which some of the clothing was specifically designed to counteract, "but I have a concern about infringements of our civil liberties, like with mass CCTV, and the possibility of someone else knowing where I am or who I'm with."

A friend of his, Sean Michael, was similarly cynical about the items on display: "It's only useful to the fashion world," he said.

However, Adam Harvey said that while he obviously aimed to sell his work, it should also be seen as something to spark a debate. He feels that a key issue should be people's "right to have counter-surveillance technology," especially given the rise of "large, automated systems" that do not necessarily require a human observer to be present.

His previous work reflects this interest in automated systems. As part of a master's thesis at New York University, he developed "CV Dazzle" (Computer Vision Dazzle), makeup and hair designs developed to thwart automatic facial recognition systems. [1]

The term 'dazzle' comes from a form of camouflage deployed during World War I and World War II, which involved painting warships in "complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other", thus "making it difficult to estimate a target's range, speed and heading." [2]

Just like dazzle camouflage, the materials used in Harvey's counter-surveillance clothing also have military origins. A German firm, Blücher Systems, markets a fabric called Ghost, which "incorporates metallized fibers and is available in various camouflage prints."

"A person wearing Ghost shows reduced infrared emissions and thus a lower radiant temperature. The infrared pictures appear scattered and detection as a human being can be successfully avoided," says the company's website. [3]

Intermat, a Greek firm, markets a similar range of "thermal countermeasures" in the shape of specialised clothing, as well as "anti-thermal coatings" for vehicles and buildings. [4]

While the world's militaries may be able to afford to buy the material necessary for "thermal countermeasures" in large quantities, for most individuals counter-surveillance clothing is likely to remain financially beyond their reach.

"It's really expensive," said Grietha from Primitive, the design house that organised the exhibition, "but in the future it could get cheaper as people experiment with the fabric." She said that the material used currently costs about £50 (€60) per square metre.

If people were to adopt the type of counter-surveillance clothing and make-up designed by Harvey, they may of course find themselves subject to even more intrusive surveillance measures from the authorities. "It's an arms race," said the artist, although he noted surprise that he hasn't received negative attention from the authorities for his projects - in fact, staff from DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the US government) have shown interest in his work.

However, Harvey didn't seem interested in cooperation with the military: "The solutions I am presenting are not for the military or survivalists," he said. Instead, they are "more of a starting point for discussion."

The exhibition, Stealth Wear, runs until 31 January at 91-93 Great Portland Street, London, W1W 7NX.

[1] Adam Harvey, CV Dazzle, April 2010
[2] Dazzle camouflage, Wikipedia
[3] Blücher Systems, Ghost
[4] Intermat Defence Coatings

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