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Fashion Trend Watch: Privacy Protective Clothing

Will the upcoming fashion weeks in New York, London, and Milan put privacy protection on the runway? Perhaps not (yet!), but privacy is making headway into the fashion world far beyond the conspiracy-theory set. The tin-foil hat is out, but new accessories to thwart paparazzi and facial recognition systems are in. And don’t worry, we’ve come a long way from the iconic “computer hood privacy scarf” of 2006.

This summer’s latest is the ISHU scarf by Saif Siddiqui. According to an article in Quartz, the scarf is “a marriage between technology and fashion that allows the wearer to block flash photography.” Siddiqui was inspired to create the scarf after a bicycle reflector ruined a photo a friend took of him Amsterdam. The ISHU website makes the case for the scarf’s role in privacy protection:

“In a world where the choice to remain anonymous is no longer a choice, Access All Brands launches the first ever consumer product precision-engineered to claim back your right to privacy, in a sophisticated and sexy manner.”
“Saif Siddiqui […] was adamant that a stylish solution be available to that select group of people who want to control unwanted pictures of them being taken with mobile devices, which inevitably end up plastered across social media.”

Siddiqui is not alone in his mission to thwart the paparazzi. In January 2015, Chris Holmes crowdfunded a line of clothing designed to foil flash photography. It’s worth noting it’s not paparazzi alone which have inspired these projects. The rise of social media and the ease with which people can share photos without the subject’s permission have created a tipping point in privacy-forward fashion.

But flash photography is only one threat to privacy. In fact, many might argue that it’s the least intrusive form, as the subject is aware of the photographers snapping away. Passive, hidden forms of surveillance such as facial recognition technology are also the subject of designers’ attempts to preserve privacy.

An article in 2014 in Gizmodo’s io9 provides an overview on how facial recognition software works and details several ways designers and technologists have attempted to thwart prying eyes. Methods include camouflage makeup, camera-disabling LEDs, shirts decorated with celebrity faces, and body heat masking.

The challenges with privacy-focused fashion are similar to those of haute couture: price and mainstream acceptance. The ISHU scarf retails for $388, placing it out of reach for the average consumer. Privacy is a human right, not a luxury item, and it will be interesting to see if other entrepreneurs will try and close the gap between those who can afford privacy fashion and those who cannot.

Thwarting facial recognition is no easy challenge, and the methods proposed so far all seem to draw more attention to the person wearing them. Anyone who looks like an extra in Blade Runner is bound to get some strange looks and questions. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps it’s exactly what we need—people who are willing to draw attention to themselves in service of preserving our shared right to privacy.

Certainly this is not the end of tailored privacy. It will be fascinating to see how innovators from all sectors will integrate privacy-conscious decisions into their designs. What we wear may soon allow us to make a statement about our position on privacy, surveillance, and our personal values. We’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: Privacy really is the new black.

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