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Brightly patterned sweaters trick facial recognition into mistaking people for zebras

When Rachele Didero — an Italian fashion major then studying in New York — learned about facial recognition technology and its risks to privacy and human rights, she started researching ways to make clothing that could undermine surveillance technology. Alongside co-founder Federica Busani, that idea grew into Cap_able.

A fashion label on a mission, Cap_able's first release is the Manifesto Collection. Each piece of knitwear is covered in a brightly colored pattern that confounds recognition technology, rendering it unable to identify a wearer as a person. Instead, patterns lead the technology to categorize the wearer as a dog, zebra, giraffe or crowd of tiny people populating a single sweater.

The capsule collection was produced in Italy and started shipping to customers in December 2022 after launching on Kickstarter. Cap_able isn't the first to create wearable items that protect wearers from being identified. But other initiatives were mostly academic or art projects, not Italian fashion brands. The company has indicated its next collection will include garments that aren't quite as loud ;-) 

Three people, one recognized as a zebra by face recognition tech

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Facial recognition technology is a particularly invasive form of surveillance because individuals are recorded, identified and tracked without their knowledge or consent. But are people concerned? That depends. According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, a small majority favors the technology when it's used for security purposes, like tracking who enters or leaves an apartment building or enhancing credit card security by using cameras to confirm a cardholder's identity. However, "57% of Americans oppose social media sites automatically identifying people in photos, and about half of Americans say they oppose companies automatically tracking the attendance of their employees."

For those who want a say in whether their image and presence are constantly recorded, Cap_able's sweaters and pants aren't perfect. They've been created to thwart specific facial recognition software, and eventually, algorithms will catch up and recognize Cap_able patterns as clothes, not zebras or giraffes. The brand's greater value may be as a conversation starter — a reminder of surveillance technology's pervasiveness and people's right to privacy.

Innovation of the day

Spotted by: Liesbeth den Toom