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Tens of thousands of Americans are taking to the streets to protest systemic racism and the killing of Black citizens at the hands of police. Images of the protests abound on social media, carrying the risk of revealing the identity of activists and unintentionally aiding the police or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in tracking and targeting them. Noah Conk, a San Francisco-based software developer, innovated a new approach to this problem with a software tool for iPhone that automatically blurs faces in photos and erases their metadata, allowing them to be shared without revealing any information as to where and when they were taken.
Together with other programmers who preferred to remain anonymous, Conk designed and developed an iOS shortcut that allows users to choose any photo from their phones and blur out all the faces in it. The shortcut then saves a copy of the photo as a “flat JPEG,” deleting all meta-data relating to GPS location, time, and the camera with which the photo was taken. (See instructions on how to install the shortcut here.)
“Many people are new to protesting and don’t realize that identities during these political times need to be hidden,” Conk told Hyperallergic in an interview. “I saw people posting convoluted steps to blur out faces and protect those protesting. It was over-complicated and more in-depth for what the average person would want to do.” (For protest images not processed through the shortcut, another method to remove metadata after blurring faces is to screenshot an image and publish the copy in lieu of the original.)
The blur tool activates a series of actions through Apple’s standard Shortcuts app. Conk said he chose to create a shortcut rather than a full app to avoid waiting through Apple’s lengthy process of app approval.
The shortcut uses a face-detector to identify the faces within a photo. Any face found gets resized to a minuscule size and then it gets scaled back up in a way that makes it difficult for algorithms to reverse-blur the faces.
Conk said he started working on the shortcut after a friend in Seattle was arrested during a recent protest and “pummeled by multiple police officers.”
“I was searching for lawyers and bail from afar, being in San Francisco,” he said. “The situation made me feel helpless.”
Developing the tool, he said, was his way of showing his support with the protesters.
“This is shortcut was built out of anger and frustration of the current state of affairs. It’s protection and unity.”