SIMONE C. NIQUILLE ON DIGITAL PRIVACY
18 June 2015
Simone C. Niquille is one of a group of international artists, musicians and designers, including Holly Herndon, Metahaven and Hito Steyerl, investigating the intimate relationship we have with digital platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo.
Here, she talks us through her work and the subjects it explores – facial recognition technology, mass surveillance and piracy for privacy:
Realface Glamouflage, Facebay and FaceValue Accessories are all part of my Master thesis from 2013 (read the essay here). The thesis, entitled FaceValue, investigates the value of the face for our identity in an environment of screens and lives (shared) online.
I was curious about who the people were I was encountering in pop-up windows online, specifically the kind that mimicked a Facebook chat or friend request, but in reality were just an animated gif. Could your own face end up on such a pop-up? Could you one day encounter someone you know? I conducted reverse image search on the faces attempting to locate the body they belonged to.
What I found however was mostly the same face used for multiple online personalities, an array of Twitter, Facebook and blogspot profiles, all seemingly more or less fake. I found this facial piracy, using a stranger’s face for your own economical interest by placing it on a fake Facebook chat gif to lure people into a clickhole, isn’t actually a threat to personal identity and ultimately privacy. But rather it is a tool that can ensure one’s privacy.
The multiple online profiles added noise to the ‘real’ identity or bodies the faces belonged to. In a strange paradox, piracy led to privacy. There isn’t one Twitter profile linked to one’s face, but multiples. This led me to a mild obsession with celebrity impersonators. The celebrity impersonator business is built on man’s obsession with celebrity. An impersonator earns money by looking like someone else, something I like to think of functioning like a facial VPN, rerouting your real identity.
An impersonator’s finances are dependant on the life decisions and popularity of the celebrity they look like, and fluctuates along with it. If Britney Spears shaves her head, what will the impersonator do? If Obama leaves office, what becomes of the many impersonators who will not be asked to show up at your birthday party anymore?
In effect, if your face has been pirated for pop-ups or if you look like a celebrity, both means function similarly in offering privacy through a multitude and copy/paste. Is getting plastic surgery to look like a celebrity thus an act of camouflage?
Realface Glamouflage, 2013
Realface Glamouflage is a collection of t-shirts utilising Dazzle, a form of camouflage developed during World War 1 to conceal by causing confusion. Facial recognition technology aims to identify a person by their facial traits. The pattern of the Realface Glamouflage t-shirts is made up of celebrity impersonators and pirated faces used on fake social media accounts and romantic spam. Both of these faces exist in multiples, raising questions of identity, privacy and verification: is this Michael Jackson? Realface Glamouflage offers privacy the way it should be offered, as a mundane commodity in the form of a t-shirt.
Domestic Anxiety, 2014
Domestic Anxiety, commissioned by the MOTI (Museum of the Image) for the exhibition Born Digital, is an evolution of facial recognition camouflage Realface Glamouflage, inspired by the Optic Nerve program. Revealed by the Guardian, in February 2014, the Optic Nerve is a mass surveillance program used by British surveillance agency GCHQ that intercepts random targets on Yahoo! web chat conversations to take screenshots, essentially mugshots, every five minutes. The program was used to create a database of faces for facial recognition software experiments, monitor targets and bulk collect identities for possible later reference. As outlined in the documents, web chat footage is optimal for biometric intel collection: “The best images are one’s where the person is facing the camera with their face upright.”
Domestic Anxiety is a collection of bedsheets and pillowcases for use in the environment in which we are most intimate with a technological device – the bedroom. We take our laptop to bed to Skype long distance with our friends and fall asleep with our lovers and binge watch Netflix and Gorillavid all the while being watched over by the little cameras embedded in our devices.
facebay.cc is an exploration of piracy for privacy. It is an online face database open for anyone to submit as well as take a face. When uploading one’s face, its looks can be altered in browser and tagged according to its characteristics. facebay.cc is a platform for a near-future in which a face is obligatory to create accounts on social networks. No more cats and babies as profile pictures but ‘real faces’. In order to avoid having to put one’s own, facebay.cc offers a database of alternate face options or offers the possiblity to visually modify one’s own face when uploaded. By making our faces available for others to use, do our own identities become difficult to pin down, lost in the noise of multiples?
A recent development of facebay.cc is facebay skins. Protective adhesive for the smartphone featuring parts of faces taken from the facebay archive. The adhesive turns the smartphone into a masking device for the face, as seen in the video ‘Black Ops Sisterhood’ (2014), which questions catfish profile creation by law enforcement for investigative purposes.
Simone C. Niquille is a guest at June’s Progress Bar on Thursday 4 June 2015. Find out more and buy tickets here: June’s Progress Bar.
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