Is it technologically possible, using today's technology, to make a phone app that renders a spy nearly impossible to photograph with another smartphone in a public place?

Assume the spy has with him nothing but a standard smartphone and normal clothing. He isn't doing anything special to disguise his face. All the work is done by the app on a normal smartphone, interacting with the cloud, of course.

Can it work? Think about it for a minute before I give you a solution. Otherwise you might be bugged that you didn't think of it on your own.

Okay, here's how this could work.

First, assume the maker of the app is the United States government, and assume they have hooks into all the major phone makers' operating systems and all of the phone carriers' networks. I think this is a fair assumption. And if they don't have that access, they can get it with some arm-twisting.

The app that the spy uses would do nothing but continuously transmit his GPS location to the cloud. The real magic comes from the government's control of all the other smartphones in the world. The spy agency could force any smartphone within photo distance of the spy to forward pictures taken during that time - and that time only - up to the cloud for facial recognition processing. The tourist who takes the photo is unaware that the photo is being uploaded to the cloud.

Once in the cloud, facial recognition software looks for signs that the spy, who is known to be in the vicinity of the photo, actually appears in the photo. If it gets a match, the spy's face is automatically replaced with stock photo of another person's face that is roughly the same age, gender, and ethnicity. The new photo is downloaded to the original phone and replaces the one that had the spy picture.

The spy software would have to intercept any photos before they get posted to social media, so there might be a time lag when a user posts to social media anything within a block of a spy. But most people would assume the lag is from network congestion or a server hiccup at Facebook.

This is another example of what I call the upcoming Age of Magic, when technology will do for us the types of things we would only see in a Harry Potter movie.



Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of this book



Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  -25
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Jul 31, 2014
Everyone with a smartphone has their GPS stream logged somewhere. Scary when you think of it.

So I guess if you're going to cheat on your wife, pick a motel next to the hardware store in case she subpoenas your GPS log. "Honey, I was shopping for sandpaper, honest."
Jul 31, 2014
If the government could force smartphone manufacturers to comply, yes, this is feasible.

There's probably a few dozen CIA guys right now saying "Hey what a great idea!"
Jul 31, 2014
What if two spies got married? What a mess their wedding photos would be.

Jul 31, 2014
File this one under useless inventions.

1. For this to work, the government in question would have to have effective control over the phones in the country in which they are spying. If such a government has such access to all the phones in another nation, along with their cameras etc, the usefulness of an actual covert agent is pretty much reduced to nothing.

2. A covert agent not wanting to be recognised will likely use a disguised at least well enough to fool facial recognition software. They can do this you know - it isn't even that hard - all you need is some invisible tape and some nostril inserts.

3. Places that a spy might need to be covert are often hidden from satellite communication and wireless signals, which makes the 'app' pretty much useless.

4. An easier thing to do would be to search the internet for your agents face, and then simply adjust the timestamp of photos he is in. The only reason why I can think of to prevent having your agent seen and recognised in a public place would be to hide some sort of meeting. If you can just change the time stamp, it will plant evidence that your agent was somewhere else entirely when a meeting was supposedly taking place.
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2014
Channeling my inner Vitruvius (see Lego Movie), "Scott, that idea is just the worst."

let's look at the chain of events: photo sensor captures data--> data is turned into file -- file is uploaded to cloud service --> file is returned to phone, presumably overwriting the existing file.

First of all, while the cloud is doing it's thing -- the original photo is on the phone -- could easily be saved to some protected storage location.
Secondly, the connection to the cloud is tenuous. If I was trying to find enemy spies, I could just just put a small Faraday cage around the phone, and then when my camera app refused to take pictures, i'd know i was in the vicinity of one. I could even rig a camera next to a phone and just compare their pictures till i found discrepancies -- voila, instant spy detector.

Your app, would in fact, make it easier to find sensitive personnel than it is today.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2014
Oops. I think I just thumbs-upped the wrong comment. I'm used to the thumbs being below, not above...

“I would argue that it's:

a) A bad idea for a spy to do his spying by using an off-the-shelf phone, and
b) A REALLY bad idea for a spy to have a GPS constantly broadcasting their position at all times”

Durn tootin’, that's the first thing that occurred to me! Then all you have to do to find the spy is locate the person whose phone is constantly broadcasting their position.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2014


"The Laughing Man is an expert hacker, able to hide his physical presence by editing himself out of video feeds and cybernetic eyes, concealing his identity by superimposing an animated logo over his face, and hijacking cybernetic brains altogether, all in real-time."
Jul 31, 2014
How to hide with only a mobile phone?

Just attach some spectacle side arms to the sides of your phone, put a closeup pic of somebody else's eyes on the screen and then wear them.

Easy peasy.
Jul 31, 2014
Well, yeah, but so what? Is a spy's greatest fear that Joe Schmotz from Peoria, IL is going to capture his face in a tourist photo of Ghirardelli Square? Then, when Joe finally goes home and gets around to posting it on his Facebook page, Russian agent XYZ, whose facial recognition software scans every single photo posted anywhere, anytime, says, "Aha! There's where Amerikanski agent 0092-1/2 was three months ago!"

Then there's the issue of cameras that don't upload photos to the cloud. I have one. So poor old agent 0092-1/2 is captured by my Impenetrable Image Capturing System (IICS) and posted on Facebook au naturale. The IICS would then become standard issue for all spies everywhere.

However, I can think of a great use for your app. Let's say Fred is meeting his gal pal Fluzette for, ahem, intimate congress, and doesn't want his significant other to know. So Fred arranges for his pal Mike to take a dual selfie with another of his pals, who is dressed just like Fred, at an SF Giant's game. Then, using the Dilbert Facemasking App (DFA), Fred's face is superimposed on the other guy's body.

So, when Fred returns home smelling of cheap perfume, and with his underwear on backwards, he has Mike email him the photo. He then tells his SA, "Look, honey, I was at the Giants' game! Here's my picture! You must be smelling the garlic fries that I had during the fifth inning!"

Of course, it would blow the whole thing if Fred doesn't have an answer to the next two questions: "Who won, and what was the score?"
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2014
Strikes me as more work than its worth. Has the CIA suddenly forgotten how to disguise their agents? The system you describe would be chancier than a disguise for reasons other posters have pointed out.
+38 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2014
I would argue that it's:

a) A bad idea for a spy to do his spying by using an off-the-shelf phone, and
b) A REALLY bad idea for a spy to have a GPS constantly broadcasting their position at all times


Ah Mr. Johnson, glad you could come.

MR. JOHNSON (aka American Spy):
Always a pleasure Jiang. How may I help you?

I have received some sorry news. There is an American spy trying to steal our secrets.

MR. JOHNSON (acting shocked. He does a really good job 'cause he's a spy):
That's outrageous! Fortunately I am a simple businessman. Just out of curiosity, how did you find out?

We hacked into the NSA database. Their GPS is very good. It says their agent is in the room right now.

You're an American spy? Your Chinese accent is very good.

Nice try.

Meh, worth a shot.
Jul 31, 2014
Why not use the technology for a much more lucrative app that let's any paying subscriber ensure that any picture taken of them is automatically uploaded to the cloud, photoshopped for blemishes, fat rolls, etc, and then downloaded back to the camera phone before it can be viewed or posted online.
Jul 31, 2014
I don't think it's feasible for a number of reasons I don't want to argue b/c my bigger point is that even if is were this is an insanely bad idea b/c it would take about 10 minutes for local police forces to say they need it too. from there it's only a couple of "campaign contributions" (i.e. bribes) away from celebrities, landmarks, etc buying their way into the party.

I get that's a separate ? from the technical one but dear god do I hope I'm right (about the tech part)...
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2014
I see this as a feature that people would want to publicly opt in to. For $5 a month, people can't post your picture to the internet without your permission. (The app functions as explained, but through a private company, not the government, and you would just disable the app if you want your picture taken.)

Celebrities could go grocery shopping without fear of people coming up to them and snapping a selfie when they're just trying to buy Oreos.

Girls gone wild at the bar wouldn't have to worry about their grandkids finding out.

This also solves the problem of spies being identified as the only person in the picture who has been modified.
Jul 31, 2014
What happens if the phone is not connected to a network, like say for example you're travelling to another country and do not want to pay roaming charges so you disable the network connections?

Or what about if -- and this is really a long shot -- the person taking the photograph is using an actual camera and not a phone?

The trouble also with replacing the face with another face is there will be evidence of this manipulation in the photograph itself and there are many websites available today where you can upload your photo and receive a report on the suspected manipulation.
+35 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2014
Sounds like an effective tool to identify whether or not someone is a spy. Take a web connected pic of a crowd, compare it to a non-web connected pic taken at the same time. Someone has been changed! Must be a spy.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog