These days, many of us are more careful than we used to be about protecting our online privacy: refusing to allow tracking cookies, browsing in private mode or with a VPN, locking down our social media accounts (or deleting them altogether). Fewer of us are taking steps to counter how we are surveilled in real life, but Scott Urban is one of them. (He asked to be interviewed via email—specifically, via ProtonMail, the email service of choice for the security-focused—rather than by phone or video conferencing, so he couldn’t be recorded.)
Urban is the creator of Reflectacles, which look like regular sunglasses but are designed to protect the wearer’s identity from prying digital eyes. The glasses address a primary problem of anti-surveillance “wearables”—that they often look odd or unattractive (like these T-shirts that render the wearer invisible to artificial intelligence surveillance technologies) and can themselves draw unwanted attention.
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Urban began designing eyewear in 2005, handcrafting custom frames out of wood. After a decade he was ready to move on. “It came down to time, mostly,” he says. He was also getting interested in the idea of making glasses that would confuse surveillance cameras.
Urban’s initial Kickstarter campaign featured two models of sunglasses. The more basic model, the IR-Pair, has lenses that block infrared radiation, making the wearer’s eyes unreadable to infrared cameras and facial recognition technologies that convert infrared data, or heat signatures, into electronic images. (It’s now available in two shades of tortoiseshell as well as in black.)
The other model, the Phantom, features the same IR lenses but also has a layer of glass microbeads applied to its frame. These reflect available infrared light back at technologies using infrared for mapping or illumination, distorting the heat signature of the wearer’s face. The Phantom remains innocuous-looking because its frame isn’t obviously reflective. Visible light can’t penetrate its outer infrared-permeable layer to reach the reflective layer underneath, so to human eyes the Phantom looks like an ordinary pair of black-framed sunglasses.
A later—and splashier—model called the Ghost, on the other hand, reflects both visible and infrared light, maintaining the wearer’s privacy in flash photos or videos. Urban now also offers clip-on and wraparound versions of the Phantom, as well as the IR-Shield, a pair of frameless goggles with IR-blocking lenses. This is the model Urban wears himself.
Reflectacles come with either light or dark IR lenses. They range from $48 to $188, depending on the model, and prescription lenses can also be ordered.
Though the glasses look like regular eyewear IRL, they don’t on camera. For instance, the owner of Urban’s local bar told Urban that his head became a “halo of light” on the bar’s video feeds and asked that he stop wearing them when inside. Urban complied because he’d rather not get into a fight (he’s already been thrown out several times for other misdeeds). However, when asked whether people would be banned if they went in wearing Reflectacles, the owner couldn’t give a definitive answer.
It’s not clear how anyone would be able to ban Reflectacles—they’re really just sunglasses, after all. The FDA already requires Category 3 sunglass lenses (the standard dark lenses) to block light with wavelengths smaller than 400 nm, which is about the borderline on the spectrum between visible and ultraviolet light. Reflectacles are doing a similar thing, just on the other side of the line, something that hasn’t been regulated. To do so, there would need to be a definitive distinction drawn between a traditional (and acceptable) sunglass lens and one that prevents biometric data from being collected.
Urban has registered Reflectacles with the FDA, which currently classifies sunglasses and other spectacles as medical devices; this means people don’t have to take them off when requested to do so. Urban notes that wearers tend to remove them at airport security anyway because it’s just easier to follow authority. “It’s sad,” he says, “but that is the reality.”
He doesn’t view Reflectacles as being some sort of radical protest against government or big tech. “We have already signed the rights to our privacy away,” he says.