Blending in? … The anti-drone hoodie, as modelled by Tom Meltzer, keeps surveillance off your back. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
I am wearing a silver hoodie that stops just below the nipples. Or, if you prefer, a baggy crop-top with a hood. The piece – this is fashion, so it has to be a ”piece” – is one of a kind, a prototype. It has wide square shoulders and an overzealous zip that does up right to the tip of my nose.
It does not, it’s fair to say, make its wearer look especially cool. But that’s not really what this hoodie is about. It has been designed to hide me from the thermal imaging systems of unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles – drones. And, as far as I can tell, it’s working well.
“It’s what I call anti-drone,” explains designer Adam Harvey. “That’s the sentiment. The material in the anti-drone clothing is made of silver, which is reflective to heat and makes the wearer invisible to thermal imaging.”
The “anti-drone hoodie” was the central attraction of Harvey’s Stealth Wear exhibition, which opened in central London in January, billed as a showcase for “counter-surveillance fashions”. It is a field Harvey has been pioneering for three years now, making headlines in the tech community along the way.
It began in 2010 with Camoflash, an anti-paparazzi handbag that responds to the unwanted camera flashes with a counter-flash of its own, replacing the photograph’s intended subject with a fuzzy orb of bright white light.
Then came his thesis project CV Dazzle, a mix of bold makeup and hairstyling based on military camouflage techniques, designed to flummox computer face-recognition software. It worked, but also made you look like a cyberpunk with a face-painting addiction. Which was not exactly inconspicuous.
Once again, though, that wasn’t really the point. “These are primarily fashion items and art items,” Harvey tells me. “I’m not trying to make products for survivalists. I would like to introduce this idea to people: that surveillance is not bulletproof. That there are ways to interact with it and there are ways to aestheticise it.”
There is, I point out, no obvious target audience for anti-drone fashion. He’s unfazed. “The kind of person who would wear it really depends on what drones end up being used for. You can imagine everything, from general domestic spying by a government, or more commercial reconnaissance of individuals.” I suggest perhaps political protesters. “Yeah, sure. Maybe that’s the actual market.”
Harvey is well aware his work can seem a little before its time. “I wouldn’t say many people have a problem being imaged by drones yet,” he deadpans. “But it imagines that this is a problem and then presents a functional solution.”
Reality, to be fair, is not so far behind. Over the next 15 years the US Federal Aviation Administration anticipates more than 20,000 new drones will appear in American skies, owned not just by law enforcement agencies and the military, but also public health bodies and private companies.
In the UK, several police forces are already experimenting with drones, and not just for thermal imaging. “They can be equipped with things called IMSI-catchers that will work out the mobile phone numbers of any people in a certain area,” explains Richard Tynan, research officer at campaign group Privacy International.
“If police deploy these things for crowd control there’s no issue with them figuring out every single person who’s in there – and their mobile phone numbers. They can also intercept calls and send out false messages. It’s not just the police either. Cybercriminals can use these, or even business opponents. This technology already exists.”
Tynan is sceptical about the power of inventions such as the hoodie to protect us from such technology. “The growth in [civilian counter-surveillance] will be dependent on the kind of work we do here to uncover what surveillance is being used. They will always lag behind in the battle.”
Not least because many of the people making counter-surveillance equipment are keen to keep it out of civilian hands. “The only people who really don’t need to be seen,” says military camouflage designer Guy Cramer, “are the ones who are doing something wrong out there.”
Cramer is, in a sense, Harvey’s military equivalent: another pioneer in the art of vanishing. Last year, Cramer’s delightfully shady-sounding company HyperStealth Biotechnology Corp made headlines worldwide with its claim to have built a functioning “invisibility cloak”, using light-bending optical camouflage to make a soldier simply disappear. So far, only various members of military top brass have been permitted to see the cloak in action – for fear, he says, that the technology will fall into the wrong hands.
Cramer has also created an “intelligent textile” named Smartcamo, capable of changing colour to match its surroundings. Unlike with the cloak, Cramer plans to make the technology available to consumers. But hopes of becoming invisible to Big Brother won’t be drastically improved; when selling to the public he and many of his competitors deliberately leave civilian customers exposed.
“When we sell to the commercial market, we use special inks that actually don’t work under infrared conditions. It looks identical but you show up on the infrared as a big white target.” The motive is mistrust of the civilian buyer. “It would cost me pennies more to add the infrared but I wouldn’t want to give the bad guys that advantage.”
He, too, is sceptical about the real-world application of anti-drone fashionwear: “It doesn’t matter how good your clothing is, if you’re not masking every part of your body – your hands, your face, your eyes – it’s going to give away your position.” An anti-drone burqa, then? That, he admits, would do the trick. But it would really take the fashion out of counter-surveillance fashionwear.