Becoming Sort of Invisible

January 13, 2023

When it comes to spying on one’s citizens, China is second to none. But at least some surveillance tech can be thwarted with enough time, effort, and creativity, we learn from Vice in, “Chinese Students Invent Coat that Makes People Invisible to AI Security Cameras.” Reporter Koh Ewe describes China’s current surveillance situation:

“China boasts a notorious state-of-the-art state surveillance system that is known to infringe on the privacy of its citizens and target the regime’s political opponents. In 2019, the country was home to eight of the ten most surveilled cities in the world. Today, AI identification technologies are used by the government and companies alike, from identifying ‘suspicious’ Muslims in Xinjiang to discouraging children from late-night gaming.”

Yet four graduate students at China’s Wuhan University found a way to slip past one type of surveillance with their InvisDefense coat. Resembling any other fashion camouflage jacket, the garment includes thermal devices that emit different temperatures to skew cameras’ infrared thermal imaging. In tests using campus security cameras, the team reduced the AI’s accuracy by 57%. That number could have been higher if they did not also have to keep the coat from looking suspicious to human eyes. Nevertheless, it was enough to capture first prize at the Huwei Cup cybersecurity contest.

But wait, if the students were working to subvert state security, why compete in a high-profile competition? The team asserts it was actually working to help its beneficent rulers by identifying a weakness so it could be addressed. According to researcher Wei Hui, who designed the core algorithm:

“The fact that security cameras cannot detect the InvisDefense coat means that they are flawed. We are also working on this project to stimulate the development of existing machine vision technology, because we’re basically finding loophole.”

And yet, Wei also stated,

“Security cameras using AI technology are everywhere. They pervade our lives. Our privacy is exposed under machine vision. We designed this product to counter malicious detection, to protect people’s privacy and safety in certain circumstances.”

Hmm. We learn the coat will be for sale to the tune of ¥500 (about $71). We are sure al list of those who purchase such a garment will be helpful, particularly to the Chinese government.

Cynthia Murrell, January 13, 2023


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