Think your mask makes you invisible to facial recognition? Not so fast, AI companies say

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Topic: Think your mask makes you invisible to facial recognition? Not so fast, AI companies say

The future of facial recognition technology may depend on one very specific part of the face: the area around the eyes.

Before the global pandemic, facial recognition systems typically worked by comparing measurements between different facial features in one image to those in another picture. But when you’re wearing a mask over your nose, mouth, and cheeks, you’re offering up a fraction of the information normally used to figure out your identity.

Now, numerous facial recognition companies say they are focusing on better identifying people based on the portion of the face above the nose and, in particular, the eye region. The stakes are high to get it right, and soon.

“If the [facial recognition] companies aren’t looking at this, aren’t taking it seriously, I don’t foresee them being around much longer,” said Shaun Moore, CEO of Trueface, whose facial recognition technology is used by the US Air Force to authenticate the identities of people entering bases.

For many individuals and privacy advocates, it may be a comforting thought that a mask could offer some measure of invisibility from computerized surveillance. But for facial recognition businesses, it poses a unique challenge at a moment when the technology appears to be in even greater demand.

Facial recognition technology has grown in prevalence — and controversy — in recent years, popping up everywhere from airport check-in lines to police departments and drugstores. And it may become even more popular as businesses look to contact-free security options because of the pandemic. Yet while it could add a sense of security and convenience for businesses who roll it out, the technology has been widely criticized by privacy advocates for built-in racial biases and potential for misuse.

A late July report on facial recognition algorithms and masked faces by federal researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, confirmed that many pre-Covid algorithms were not up to the task. The most accurate facial recognition algorithms that the lab tested failed to make a correct match between 5% and 50% of the time.

There was one key caveat, however: All the algorithms NIST tested were submitted before mid-March. In the months since then, a number of artificial intelligence companies have said they’re working to ensure their facial recognition technology can figure out who is behind the mask.

Topic Discussed: Think your mask makes you invisible to facial recognition? Not so fast, AI companies say

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