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Face Masks Provide Unexpectedly Positive Perk: Fooling Facial Recognition Algorithms

So, are face masks cool again now?

As we spend more and more time in the digital realm via our smartphones, televisions, and laptops, the digital realm is also creeping into our real lives.

We are interacting with touchscreens and being observed by a veritable army of cameras around the world.  The right hacker, with the right abilities, could likely track us from home to work and back again, just by activating the internet-connected cameras along those routes.

It’s terrifying to truly realize just how watched we are.  And, with COVID-19 providing a perfect pretext for contact-tracing, this surveillance state is about to get much worse.

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That’s where virus face masks provide an unexpected benefit to us.

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Unlocking devices just isn’t the same during the COVID-19 pandemic. With millions of Americans forced to wear face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, facial recognition software like the biometric readers that allow users to access their smartphones has become less effective, according to a new National Institute of Standards and Technology report.

The study found that facial recognition algorithms developed prior to the pandemic had error rates as high as 50% when attempting to identify people wearing masks. Released Monday, the report is the first in a series of NIST studies investigating how face masks affect facial recognition software.

“With the arrival of the pandemic, we need to understand how face recognition technology deals with masked faces,” Mei Ngan, a NIST computer scientist and an author of the report, said in a statement announcing the study. “We have begun by focusing on how an algorithm developed before the pandemic might be affected by subjects wearing face masks.”

With masks being ferociously encouraged by health-conscious Americans during this difficult time, we can only imagine that the inability of corporations to continue to capitalize on their costly facial recognition technology will spur a renewed fight against the coverings as well.

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