HSRCBlog Even masks against COVID-19 won’t protect you from new facial recognition technologies
COVID-19 Masks Facial Recognition Technologies

Even masks against COVID-19 won’t protect you from new facial recognition technologies

One of the effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), which emerged in Hubei province, China, during December 2019, is that almost everyone is wearing a surgical mask outdoors in the hope of warding off the virus. Even though the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised healthy people to only wear masks if they’re taking care of someone who might have been infected, millions of people around the globe are still using these masks. This is posing a particular problem for the Chinese Government, and probably others, to utilize facial recognition technologies for surveillance as part of their fight to try and mitigate this new pandemic.


It should be mentioned that even under normal circumstances China employs some of the world’s most sophisticated systems of electronic surveillance, including facial recognition. According to a survey conducted by cybersecurity firm Comparitech, China is ranked last out of 50 surveyed countries in a study looking at how extensively and invasively biometric ID and surveillance systems are being deployed. According to the report, facial recognition systems are being rolled out in public transportation stations, schools, and shopping centers across the country.


A recent survey by a Beijing research institute indicates growing push-back against facial recognition in China. Some 74% of respondents have said they wanted the option to be able to use traditional ID methods over facial recognition tech to verify their identity. The Chinese people’s attempts to avoid infection may be futile, but they may have another motivation for wearing the masks: avoiding facial recognition.


In comes Hanwang Technology (English name: Hanvon), a Chinese company that says it has recently developed the country’s first facial recognition technology that can identify people when they are wearing a mask. The company is saying that their new development will help with the fight against the Coronavirus, but one can be sure that this technology, if proved to be working well, will stay long after the disease is mitigated.


In order to develop this technology, Hanwang Technology used a sample database of around 6 million unmasked faces and a much smaller database of masked faces. Hanwang Vice President Huang Lei says: “the system’s recognition rate reached about 95% when people wore a mask — still some way below its regular success rate of 99.5%”.


Another company, China’s SenseTime, announced a few week ago that it had also adapted its product to identify people wearing masks and we can assume more companies will work on their capabilities to provide this new feature.


It should be mentioned that such developments have led critics to claim that the Coronavirus is being used as an excuse to ramp up surveillance. This remains to be seen in the future…


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Gil Siegel

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