Masks and our face-recognition future: How coronavirus (slightly) clouds the picture painted by tech firms

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
April 6, 2020

Facial recognition surveillance systems are ominous. People see how these tools threaten privacy and civil liberties and consider ways they might resist being tracked and profiled everywhere they go. One option that is regularly tossed around is the idea of frustrating identification systems with clothing and accessories that obscure and distort our appearance.

Until now, it’s mostly been art installations and academic projects experimenting with face-jamming. But with the spread of COVID-19 fueling expanded surveillance as well as the number of people who are wearing face masks, scarves and bandanas, there’s a flicker of hope that masks will make face recognition harder and harder to implement.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to opt-out so easily?

Unfortunately, more people covering their faces won’t meaningfully thwart face recognition technology, or make it any less urgent to grapple with the threats that go along with it.

Face coverings are important for public health. But they are just a speed bump for facial recognition. These systems are still flawed and they still present huge problems for privacy and civil rights. If anything, COVID-19 is likely to spur more, not less, facial surveillance.

In the U.S., the controversial facial recognition startup company Clearview AI is said to be talking with state agencies about using its technology to “track patients infected by the coronavirus”; in China, facial recognition software is linked to a phone app that codes “people based on their contagion risk” and determines when they’re cleared to enter an array of public spaces; and, in Russia, facial recognition technology is being deployed to track people who violate quarantine orders.

Since every crisis gets exploited, companies have seized on the narrative that government investment in facial recognition technology during a pandemic is a win-win. They are promising benefits that go beyond immediate health concerns, such as upgraded transportation and crowd management systems.

In some contexts, it’s harder for technology to identify a half-covered face. But companies are already creating workarounds that make educated guesses about what masked faces look like. Even if these adaptations turn out to be less effective than advertised, masks still won’t protect us from the oppressive and harmful effects of face surveillance.

Read the full piece at The New York Daily News