Coronavirus Masks Pose Quandary for Facial Recognition

By Joanne Cleaver

We all look like bandits now. Will that knock facial-recognition algorithms for a loop?

The great COVID-19 cover-up is pulling masks across the lower half of most faces in America. Wearing fabric face masks out in public (anywhere, really) is a new experience for most Americans, but so is facial-recognition software.

Cameras that can recognize and validate your identity by rapidly running your features through algorithms to confirm that you are you — or not — are now just starting to be used by landlords, financial institutions and office security systems. 

With half our faces hidden, the industry is trying to adjust for the short and long terms.

“This is a new thing for us. We have to adapt, as an industry,” Shaun Moore, CEO of Trueface, a Los Angeles facial-recognition software company, told Digital Privacy News. 

The New Normal

Trueface and other facial-recognition companies realize that masks might be the new normal in America, at least for some citizens.

“We’re preparing for Americans to be wearing them longer term,” Moore said. “It definitely is possible to do facial recognition for access [to buildings and to financial accounts] even with masks on.

“Our assumption is that people will start to wear masks more regularly — and we have to prepare for this,” she said.

Even masks that are not medical-grade can help keep viruses from spreading by catching the spray, sneezes and sniffles emitted from all people, including those who are unknowingly infected.

In the past five weeks, masks have gone from a non-issue to the object of intense manufacture by companies of all sizes as well as by home hobbyists. 

Until the software catches up, mask-wearers will have to go barefaced before the cameras, especially if they’re trying to get into buildings or at their money.  

Can’t Use at Borders

Elke Oberg, marketing manager for Cognitec Systems, a German firm that was early to the field of facial recognition, wrote in an email to Digital Privacy News that “in high-security scenarios, such as border control, persons will be required to remove the mask during the verification processes.

“ID photos for any ID document will continue to be taken without a mask,” Oberg said.

Oberg and Moore emphasized that facial-recognition software is not typically used in the U.S. or Europe for “real time,” routine surveillance.

Instead, it’s usually used as one of several sources of identity verification, when footage from security tapes is analyzed to narrow down or confirm the identity of a suspect. 

“Using face recognition to track people in public is a highly controversial subject, and will need to pass legislation in democratic countries,” Oberg told Digital Privacy News. “It is unlikely that free societies will vote for this measure, neither with or without masks.”

‘Tweaking’ Algorithms

In China, though, facial recognition is widely used — and the technology is quickly being adapted to work around masks. One company, Herta, said its algorithms can identify people despite masks. 

U.S. companies are thinking about it.

“If we can tweak the algorithms to put a higher level of interest in the top half of the face,” Moore said, “you can pick up on that more.”

Joanne Cleaver, a writer in Charlotte, N.C., has sewn and donated more than four dozen masks to front-line medical professionals.

Image Credit: DPN, Ross May (Getty Images)


  • WSJ (external link, paywall) 
  • Nature (external link)
  • Herta Press Release (external link)
  • Ars Technica (external link)

Science Daily (external link)