Ewa Nowak: Hiding in Plain Sight

The year 2019 is quickly coming to a close, and we still don’t have flying cars, a confirmed cure for cancer, or many other innovations that citizens of the past dreamed would be a part of our lives by now. What we have instead is an abundance of facial recognition technology that some people believe puts our security at risk. Ewa Nowak is one of those people.

Nowak, a Polish designer who blends art and technology in her work, made international news after designing a metal “mask” that blocks facial recognition algorithms from reading the wearer’s face when worn properly. The device, called “Incognito,” is composed of a brass rectangular panel that lies flat on the wearer’s forehead and connects to two brass circles with the circumference of a cupcake that are positioned under a person’s eyes. The same wire that connects the panel to the circles tucks behind ears like the “arms” on a pair of glasses to give the effect of a futuristic piece of jewelry. 

“This project was preceded by a long-term study on the shape, size and location of mask elements so that it actually fulfills its task,” Nowak wrote on her website. “When testing solutions, I used the DeepFace algorithm, which is used by Facebook” (Barba-Court). The DeepFace team has developed the software to have 97.25% accuracy in identifying faces, but wearing Incognito will subvert it.

Nowak has been designing websites and UX (user experience) technology since 1998; this is not her first attempt to defeat artificial intelligence. (Check out the slightly less practical reflective mask she previously designed to achieve the same effect as “Incognito.”) She is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland and works alongside her colleague, Jaroslaw Markowicz, at their studio, “Noma”. Nowak is currently based in Denver, CO, where she does most of her outreach via social media. 

Advertised on Nowak’s Instagram page, @noma_design_studio, “Incognito” is symbolic of a growing distrust of technology in a world increasingly filled with it. In light of privacy breaches like the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal, it is becoming more important to some people to disclose their identities as infrequently as possible. Although “Incognito” is still a prototype, its existence signifies a leap forward for those who prefer to fly under the radar, and it has begun to garner attention in the art world. It was the winner of the “Mazda Design Award,” at the Lodz Design Festival in Poland, an international showcase of artwork from textiles to printmaking. 

As our existences grow more and more digitized, Nowak’s creation reads more like a political statement about privacy than it does a fashion accessory; her stance on the topic is clear. The mask’s combination of streamlined form and effective function makes it a meaningful, timely step forward in humanity’s pushback against borderline intrusive technological innovations. Will other tech artists follow in her footsteps and push the boundaries of a new form of art?

Just as her invention permits others to do, Nowak has hidden in plain sight for the last several years. As we prepare to enter a new decade, it seems she and her masterpiece are finally beginning to claim the spotlight. 

-Abby Palazzo