Cameras, William Gibson, X-Files, and a Visionary Make-Up Artist

The year was 1998. William Gibson, the father of Cyberpunk, was a hot commodity. X-Files, the edgy I-Want-To-Believe sci fi show was champion of the airwaves.

Together, these should have made an incredible pairing.  Instead, it was rather dumb. The episode, Kill Switch, dealt with some typical cyberpunk ideas – artificial intelligence, transferring consciousness into the internet, and TV-ridiculous hacking. None of it was particularly visionary – mostly it was pretty silly, really. Uploading consciousness to the internet pre-broadband? Ludicrous!

However, a project I stumbled across recently brought back memories of the episode, albeit for a fairly odd reason: eye makeup.

Esther Nairn (Kristin Lehman)

Hi there, when I’m not being a super-hot hacker chick, I like to spend my time impersonating leather-clad raccoons.

The episode features a female hacker – Esther Nairn, played by the lovely Kristin Lehman – working to stop the evil AI. But for some strange reason completely ignored in the episode, she’s painted like a raccoon.

I’m not even sure who we can blame the makeup job on – IMDB lists Laverne Munroe (née Basham) as the key makeup artist, but whether she came up with the original concept for the black eyes, I’m not able to find out. Five whole minutes of Googling failed me (insert mandatory masturbation joke here).

When the episode aired, I was incredibly excited – I mean, c’mon, my favorite author, penning an episode of my favorite TV show? How could this NOT be awesome, right? And then ol’ Raccoon-Eyes showed up, and I would have been less disappointed had they used an actual talking squirrel.

Now, 15 years later, the jokes on me. Because although William Gibson may have been wildly off with his predictions of our cyberpunk future, it turns out the makeup artist was on to something.

I live in the quaint Amish-centric city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Apart from being home to Whoopie Pies (screw you, Maine!), Lancaster also gained a bit of notoriety for being the most-surveilled city of it’s size. Video cameras are everywhere in Lancaster. It’s gone from “disturbing” straight through to “ludicrous.” But they’ve been in place for years and there’s just not enough of an outrage for your average citizens to get up in arms about them – that is, until Snowden revealed the NSA is guilty of privacy violations that would make the Gestapo blush.

Suddenly, camera surveillance is coming back on people’s radars. Not so much in Lancaster yet, but there’s been a march on DC and a petition (and yes, I know how effective those are). And now there’s talk about “fighting back” against surveillance. One of the ideas that has gained popularity recently (although it was originated in 2010) is the brainchild of Adam Harvey and involves using haircuts and face paint to “mask” your face from cameras.

Red indicates no face recognition; green is recognized.

CV Dazzle uses haircuts and makeup to mask facial features. Red indicates no face recognition; green is detected.

When I read about this, I flashed back all those years ago to the “ridiculous” idea of the raccoon makeup – and then it hit me: the makeup in that episode wasn’t stupid; it was goddamned prescient.

Most facial recognition software these days runs on the Viola-Jones framework. The purpose of CV Dazzle is to obscure faces from being recognized by masking facial features using makeup and asymmetrical haircuts that make it impossible for the Viola-Jones framework to lock on to common facial structures. It’s actual an old principle – dazzle camouflage dates back to WWI – and, once again, everything old is new again. Only instead of breaking up what the eye sees, now we’re after something to break up what the lens sees, to the same effect: to avoid torpedos!

It’s certainly a novel concept. In a society that intrudes more and more on our personal space, people that were once considered goofy “cyberpunk”-wannabes of some sort are these days just people trying to get by without Big Brother watching and cataloging their every move. And do they have something to hide? Not necessarily. Personally, I use Bitcoins, the TOR network, and a few other dirty tricks to avoid surveillance – and not because I’m up to being the digital Che Guevara, but because I believe the government doesn’t have any business being in my business.

I know I have odd values – but I believe our country has gone too far. As Benjamin Franklin stated, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” And I believe that to somewhat crazy extremes that a lot of people are uncomfortable with confronting: I would rather mass attacks be carried out against innocent civilians than live in a Big Brother state. What made this nation great – our concepts of freedom, liberty and justice for all – are being steamrolled underneath a carpet of fear and “for the greater good”-ness. I think it goes against the principles of our nation to put our citizens under strict scrutiny. I think the security theater we engage in is a travesty and obscene. I think it is a citizen’s duty to fight back against a government that overreaches and invades its’ citizens rights illegally (and no, not violently – calm down, Mr. NSA Agent that wandered onto my blog).

But wearing something ridiculous simply to thwart surveillance cameras for no other reason than they are morally wrong? I could get behind that.

So yes, maybe someday soon I’ll start wearing face makeup in odd patterns. Or get myself an Ugly Tshirt.

Pris from Bladerunner

Screw you guys, I was making this look sexy WAAAAAAYYY before any of you asshats tried to copy off of me!

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