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MIT Technology Review

How coronavirus turned the “dystopian joke” of FaceID masks into a reality

Thousands ordered masks that let them unlock their phones during outbreaks. But this viral art project doesn’t just work with surveillance technology—it works against it, too.

February 29, 2020
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Unsplash: Isi Parente

Two weeks ago, Danielle Baskin had an idea for a tongue-in-cheek art project. Now, she’s suddenly big in China. 

While talking with friends about the coronavirus outbreak, Baskin, an artist in San Francisco, realized that people using face masks to protect themselves from infection would have trouble unlocking phones that use facial recognition. (This has indeed been a problem.) She quickly created a prototype of a mask printed with a face—not “your” face, but rather unique faces of imaginary people generated using artificial intelligence—and posted her idea on Twitter: “Protect people from viral epidemics while still being able to unlock your phone.”

The demand was immediate. Those interested in the idea include cancer patients who want to customize their masks, doctors who work in children’s hospitals and don’t want to scare kids—and people in China. Her invention was picked up by Chinese media, and now her waiting list has over 2,000 people on it, many of them with Chinese email accounts. And it’s not just a request for one or two masks each: one potential customer requested 10,000 masks. Eight people asked if they could be her distributor. Baskin won’t be fulfilling these orders for a while—there’s a global mask shortage right now—but the masks do work, as long as you set FaceID to recognize you when you’re wearing it.

“I think these are so cool as a social object and art object,” says Robert Furberg, a researcher who studies biometrics in health care at RTI International. “It’s the fusion of something threatening and protective at the same time, and I just find that so compelling.” He is one of those who reached out to Baskin; his wife is a nurse and has complained about the inconvenience of masks and FaceID. For him, the demand itself is a form of social commentary: “It’s just so 2020.” 

But while most people are simply concerned about being able to use their phones while wearing a mask, they may discover a surprising bonus. Baskin says there’s an element of anti-surveillance built in. “[The mask] appears to be working with facial recognition, but it will never actually be your face,” she says. It’s tricking the technology and protecting your biometric information: “The image is something your friends could identify as you but that machine learning can’t, and it shows that face recognition has errors.” 

face mask
Phone-unlocking face mask.
Danielle Baskin

Art against surveillance

Arty anti-surveillance devices and techniques have become more popular in recent years, from anti-facial-recognition face paint to an “invisibility cloak” that can block object detectors; from the Adversarial Fashion line that confuses automated license plate readers to the simple face masks that protesters in Hong Kong and India have used to hide their face from cameras. The media reports breathlessly on each advance, but for the most part, they are more political commentary than useful tactics for the average person. Those projects, in fact, might be less helpful if they went mainstream, because wide adoption could lead to an arms race that enables the invasive technology to route around defenses.

Even when taken simply as performance art rather than a potential solution, these designs can have a downside. Torin Monahan, a surveillance researcher at the University of North Carolina, says such projects risk leading people to believe that surveillance is inevitable and it’s up to individuals to solve the problem. “These kinds of interventions tend to position surveillance as a universal threat to which individuals can respond and maybe should respond—but that misses how the affluent and white are positioned in a much more advantageous way than those who are marginalized and subject to police or state surveillance on a regular basis,” he says. “I worry that by commercializing and aestheticizing surveillance in these ways, we aren’t having a conversation about unequal vulnerabilities.”

Still, Monahan says that the work can also draw attention to the reality of surveillance, which has become an increasing concern. A recent Pew Research report found  that most Americans feel they’re being constantly tracked and can’t do anything about it. This tracks with what Kate Rose, the founder of the Adversarial Fashion line, has seen. 

When she first debuted her clothing line, “the demand was enormous,” she says, and it has remained consistent since. “People were not only wanting to participate in the conversation around surveillance, but were hungry for expressing their opinion of it and their interest in investing in the future,” she adds. Wearing a certain type of clothes or using a certain type of makeup is an obvious manifestation of that feeling of helplessness, and can be used to spur others too. Individual protest may not be a substitute for collective action, she says, but when collective action isn’t taken, these garments push against the idea that “governments decide everything and I have no power.”

And legal battles are increasingly bringing this conversation into the public eye. In 2018, the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a pro bono law firm based in Washington, DC, filed a lawsuit against the small Florida town of Coral Gables for its use of automatic license plate readers. “This is one of the situations where technology moves faster than the law, and it moves more quickly than interpretation of constitutional rights,” says Caleb Kruckenberg, the NCLA’s counsel. “Obviously, from my perspective I’m hoping the courts will intervene,” he says. But if they don’t, he adds, these kinds of countermeasures are one way to continue forcing the system. 

Art and life

Monahan, the surveillance scholar, says that his favorite examples of anti-surveillance performance art aren’t necessarily wearable. In Belgian artist Dries Depoorter’s museum installation “Jaywalking,” for instance, visitors watch live surveillance cams to catch jaywalkers and are given the choice to report them to the police. “Those kinds of interventions are good at showing people their complicity in these larger surveillance systems,” Monahan says. “These kinds of artistic works are good because they trouble—they don’t make you feel comfortable and playful.”

For her part, Baskin intended her FaceID masks to do the same; she started the project “entirely as this sort of dystopian joke.” The internet attention has convinced her it can actually be done—that the joke can have real, and even helpful, uses even as it provokes. Baskin isn’t interested in getting everyone to go out in public wearing one of her masks, but given how little transparency there is around who is using surveillance and how, she says, “anything that makes people slightly more afraid is good.”