We've come a long way from the tinfoil hat, that traditional aluminum trademark of conspiracy theorists.
These days, the idea that average citizens need protection from Orwellian-style surveillance seems more practical than paranoid, because of Bill C-51, Canada's expansive "anti-terror" legislation that allows for more personal information to be shared among a list of government departments or the warnings of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who advocates for greater global privacy-protection rights.
While the concept of blocking unwanted signals – ones that transfer data from your phone, including your whereabouts, your surfing habits and your e-mail history – isn't exactly mainstream, product designers are coming up with a surprisingly broad range of surveillance (or anti-surveillance) items designed to protect our privacy.
The trend was neatly encapsulated by Ways to be Secret, a recent display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which ran from April to September. Curated by Corinna Gardner, the show drew attention to objects that both encourage sharing information online (such as the selfie stick) and block it (such as the Cryptophone 500, a military-grade mobile with the highest security standards on the market – 100,000 of them are in use worldwide).
"Moments of social, economic and political change are articulated through these objects," says Gardner, a curator in the museum's department of contemporary architecture, design and digital, who attributes the growth in this category to increasing awareness of surveillance "creep."
Take, for instance, the SyncStop/USB Condom from Xipiter, which appeared in the exhibit: It creates a barrier between a mobile device and an unknown USB port, offering protection from what is colloquially known as "juice-jacking" (or unwanted data transfer) when charging your phone away from home.
That the first release of the USB Condom sold out immediately when it was introduced to market says a lot about how hungry the public is for anti-surveillance products, Gardner says.
Another modern example is the OFF Pocket, a phone case that takes a device totally off-grid, making it untraceable. It's a collaboration by smart-fashion designer Johanna Bloomfield and privacy-product designer Adam Harvey, whose line of "stealth wear" includes an anti-drone burqa that shields against thermal surveillance used by military drones.
The OFF Pocket is meant to straddle function and fashion, Harvey told media members when he launched the product in 2013. He intended it to be both "antagonistic to surveillance technology" and "for stylish use."
This type of fashion statement is another side of the surprisingly robust anti-surveillance and wearable-tech scene.
After Facebook introduced facial recognition software in 2013, Amsterdam design student Simone C Niquille created Realface Glamoflage, a line of creepy camouflage-esque T-shirts that thwart auto-tagging and data analyzing. The Desearch Repartment, an international team based in Canada and Germany, has created similar suits that scramble facial recognition.
In 2014, Austrian architecture studio Coop Himmelb(l)au released the Jammer Coat: resembling a shapeless, psychedelic sleeping bag, the spotted garment blocks radio waves and tracking devices, ultimately hiding its wearer from Google.
Of course, another way to deal with living in an increasingly surveyed world is simply to disconnect. And even then, artists and designers are playing a role, creating spaces that usher visitors back to an analog time.
In 2013, ad agency JWT Amsterdam teamed up with Nestlé Kit Kat to design a Free No-WiFi Zone – essentially a park bench that blocks Internet signals – to give lingerers a break from e-mails, Facebook updates, hashtags and double taps.
Australian design collective Siblings created a similar installation in 2014. Called ON/OFF, it took the form of a mesh enclosure that blocked electromagnetic signals and WiFi to act as the "ultimate disconnection space."
At the 2013 SXSW, one of the largest interactive festivals in the world, paper company Domtar Corp. provided a wireless "paper hotspot" for "paper devices only, please" – providing users with chairs, books, art supplies and sketch pads.
And in 2014, artist Julien Thomas teamed up with HCMA Architecture + Design in Vancouver to create Faraday Café, a temporary coffee shop that actively repelled wireless signals, creating a black hole that rendered phones unusable.
What's interesting about this alternative digital technology is that its innovations are driven by a form of nostalgia for a time before ubiquitous wireless coverage and multitasking devices took hold.
Some of these new devices offer what Gardner calls "defeaturing": a design that strips a product back to its original, traditional purpose.
The "dumbphone" is a perfect example. British designer Jasper Morrison recently launched the telephone in collaboration with Swiss tech company Punkt. The stripped-back mobile handset makes calls and accepts voice mail. That's it.
"It is a liberating device that removes unnecessary distractions and goes back to the essentials of communication," Punkt founder and CEO Petter Neby said.
The same goes for the Twen 180 electronic typewriter, another traditional device experiencing a second wind, according to Gardner. She has heard that the device, originally designed by Triumph-Adler in 1989, was purchased in significant numbers by Russian Federal Guard Services in 2013 to "expand the practice of creating paper documents." Digital files are apparently too easily leaked.
One security specialist, who didn't want his name used because of his work, says people forget that surveillance has always existed. For example, before the Internet, police used to subpoena individual library records to get a background on their perp.
It's just that the public is more aware of it now: We see the immediate fruits of tracking efforts around us, whether they are the weirdly personalized ads on Facebook or fallout from the Ashley Madison hack.
What has changed, however, is the technology – and our attitudes.
"We can discuss things now that, five years back … would have gotten you labelled a conspiracy theorist."
The former NSA contractor has been sharing simple security tips with his followers. So far, he's recommending pragmatic basics such as strong passwords over encasing yourself in wireless-repelling tech.
Then again, he predicts that this is only the beginning – flicking to fears that are sure to keep product designers busy.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said artist Julien Thomas teamed up with Hughes Condon Marler Architects in Vancouver. The company has changed its name to HCMA Architecture + Design.