How to disappear completely: Wear glasses that fool facial recognition

Confirming what Clark Kent has already known for decades, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have shown that wearing dorky-looking glasses is a great way to confuse people about your identity.  

In a brilliantly named paper, titled “

Accessorize to a Crime: Real and Stealthy Attacks on State-of-the-Art Face Recognition, the researchers have come up with a way to fool facial recognition systems by wearing glasses with specially printed frames.

“In this paper, we focus on facial biometric systems, which are widely used in surveillance and access control,” the researchers explain. “We define and investigate a novel class of attacks: attacks that are physically realisable and inconspicuous, and allow an attacker to evade recognition or impersonate another individual.

“We develop a systematic method to automatically generate such attacks, which are realised through printing a pair of eyeglass frames,” they continue. “When worn by the attacker whose image is supplied to a state-of-the-art face-recognition algorithm, the eyeglasses allow her to evade being recognised or to impersonate another individual.”

The paper shows how an individual can “perturb” identification by wearing glasses, causing their facial features to be misclassified by the system. Not only can this help a person to dodge identification, but can also confuse the system into thinking they are another person entirely.

In an experiment described by the paper, one subject – a 41-year-old white male – successfully fooled a facial-recognition system into thinking he was both the actress Milla Jovovich, and the actor John Malkovich. Another subject had less luck using special glasses to impersonate former US secretary of state Colin Powell.malkovich

(Above: From the 1999 film, Being John Malkovich)

“We hypothesise that some targets are particularly difficult for some subjects to impersonate,” the researchers write. “We also believe, however, that even in those cases further refinement of the attacks can lead to greater success than we have so far measured.”

Facial-recognition systems are being introduced in various aspects of society. A number of shopping centres have been trialling the use of the technology to help with targeting advertisements, while New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently unveiled plans to use facial recognition across “structurally sensitive points” in the US city, including major bridges and tunnels. Research such as that conducted by Carnegie Mellon University goes some way to show that these methods are far from infallible, and may in fact introduce whole new ways to disappear from modern society.

Then again, as the German artist Hito Steyerl shows, there’s more than one way not to be seen.


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