by Jincy IypeDec 28, 2022
Amidst the army of screen locks, PINs, biometric authentication, and an entire inventory of passwords, how safe is our data? More and more data about every individual is being generated exponentially faster from more and more devices—a pace we are struggling to keep up with. Discourses surrounding data security and privacy have been rife across the world, given the many breaches people are now vulnerable to, and oftentimes, easy victims of. But this invasion does not limit itself to the internet and apps on our devices that magically seem to be hearing—and responding to—our thoughts. It is as rampant, if not more, when one is simply walking down the street. As for the multitude of mass surveillance cameras, everyone is a suspect—and one is seldom given a choice to opt in or opt out.
Choosing what to wear is the first act of communication we perform every day—a choice that can be the vehicle of our values. – Rachele Didero
C_ollaboration, a_wareness and p_eople are the three pillars that uphold the mission of Cap_able. This Italian fashion-tech startup, through innovative design products that mesh technology with ethics, opens the debate on issues that partake in our present and, subsequently, delineate our future. Cap_able, aiming at a cultural and technological avant-garde, emerges as a contemporary pioneer in raising awareness on the importance of individuals’ rights—all while making a statement. Wearers of the maximalist garments not only choose the products as a means of expression but also annunciate their shared values within a reference community. “Choosing what to wear is the first act of communication we perform every day—a choice that can be the vehicle of our values,” says Rachele Didero, founder and CEO of Cap_able. "In a world where data is the new oil, Cap_able addresses the issue of privacy, opening the discussion on the importance of protecting against the misuse of biometric recognition cameras,” the textile designer adds.
Cap_able’s debut project dubbed Manifesto, much like its name, represents the Italian brand’s ethos through a collection of knitted garments that shield the wearer's biometric data. The clothing line broaches a rather underrepresented issue of improper use of facial recognition technology and the consent that is missing in such scenarios. In an exclusive conversation with STIR, Federica Busani, co-founder of Cap_able, delves into the inception of the startup, the message that propels it ahead, and the whirlwind that animates the young initiative.
Are you (in)visible to mass surveillance?
The origins of the now patented technology can be traced back to Didero’s enrollment in an exchange program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2019—a time when conversations of mass surveillance were rapidly gaining momentum in the United States. Moved by a conversation with a UC Berkeley engineer on privacy and human rights, she began laying the groundwork for an idea that amalgamated fashion design and computer science. After months of research involving textile skills, machine learning, and the study of volumes on the body, the adversarial fabric was born. “The idea was to transform images that only existed in the digital world into an actual product, something that we could actually use and possibly wear,” Busani shares. After presenting the concept as her thesis and graduating, Didero joined a training program on entrepreneurship offered by CRT Foundation in Turin, Italy, which is where she and Busani first crossed paths. “We had very similar values and shared an interest in the protection of human rights, what privacy means and why we should protect it—and so the journey started,” recalls Busani.
The biggest problem with privacy protection is the lack of awareness. Once we will all be aware of the causes and the consequences of the lack of privacy, then we will be able to act on it. – Federica Busani
A Manifesto of the power to choose
Numerous organisations across the globe have pointed out the inaccuracy and prejudice that accompany facial recognition technologies. And if our facial image belongs to the category of biometric data in the same way as our fingerprints and DNA do, why is explicit consent discounted? "The biggest problem with privacy protection is the lack of awareness. Once we will all be aware of the causes and the consequences of the lack of privacy, then we will be able to act on it,” Busani comments.
With the Manifesto collection, Cap_able challenges these ubiquitous systems of unregulated scrutiny that surreptitiously impact a consequential fraction of the global citizens. The product design has a two-fold value: the garment is a shield against biometric recognition, while, above all, being a manifesto that intends to stimulate the debate on the importance of protection from the misuse of facial recognition technology. “When you buy Cap_able, you don’t only buy the message, but you buy a protection—a way to say no, to choose, and your right to opt out,” the co-founder notes.
A dog? A zebra? A giraffe?
Central to the project is a system capable of transposing adversarial patches onto knitted fabric, culminating in wearable designs that can deceive surveillance cameras in real-time. “You need to imagine our garments as an inverted QR code; they give wrong information to the cameras,” Busani explains. By wearing a garment with a woven adversarial image, the biometric data of their face is either undetectable or associated with an incorrect category such as a dog, a giraffe, or a zebra—almost as if sneering the surveillance systems. The adversarial patches, that have until now only been printed, become one with the fabric’s texture through Cap_able’s patented method. The process allows the fashion designers to incorporate the algorithm into the texture in order to ensure a perfect fit of the garments without losing their effectiveness and blending perfectly with the volumes of the body.
The maximalism that the garments exude is a derivative of the fact that adversarial images demand myriad colours to function. “With the Manifesto collection, you are unrecognisable to the cameras but you are very recognisable on the street,” Busani says. In tandem with the vibrance and the technological efficacy, Cap_able epitomises sustainability at every stage of the design process. The knitted fashion capsule collection is made with cotton yarns of 100 per cent super soft Egyptian cotton quality by Filmar, a company that adheres to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI); they are free of dangerous chemicals and 100 per cent Made in Italy. The textile design has been tested with YOLO, the most common and fastest real-time object detection system. People donning Cap_able’s garments are not recognised as such by the software, which instead identifies different animals within the fabric.
A garment, a statement, a question
“We do not want anyone to be forced into any category they have not chosen; we do not want to force them even to protect their privacy,” says Busani. “We never want to say what is right or wrong, but we want people to talk about it,” she adds. Perched at the crossroads of engineering, machine learning, technology, and fashion design, a crusade for inclusion and freedom seems only inherent for a company that defies pigeonholing itself. "Cap_able aims at changing the way people look at the clothes and accessories they wear by bringing a completely new and deeper attitude to the fashion industry," explains Busani. “Cap_able wants to find new solutions and new fields of application of the technology, to make people reflect on an urgent problem too often underestimated,” she adds.
Cap_able implores people to acknowledge—and question—intrusive systems that shadow them and freeze their rights including freedom of expression, association, and free movement in public spaces. While many endorse the message, the Italian startup takes it a step further by playing an active role as a plausible solution. The apprehensions accompanying the problem of mass surveillance are many, but this change, akin to any other, will stem from conversations that young initiatives such as Cap_able vitalise. We have ushered vis-à-vis an imperative inquisition: is fashion a mere piece of garb? Or is it something one wants to say—something one stands for? And if its essence transcends its physicality, what are we choosing to communicate?
Tap the cover video to watch the entire conversation with Federica Busani.