Leaked Docs Allege DHS is Worried Masks Will Render Facial Recognition Useless

facial recognition

Face masks used to mitigate Covid-19 could potentially disrupt facial recognition technologies.

By Shish KaBob Seger

Photo by Engin Akyurt

As if masks were not yet enough of a political lightning rod.

In a recent release of documents by Blueleaks, a Department of Homeland Security memo expresses concern about how now ubiquitous mask-wearing could disrupt facial recognition technology.

Published on last May, the memo articulated fears to “the potential impacts that widespread use of protective masks could have on security operations that incorporate face recognition systems — such as video cameras, image processing hardware and software, and image recognition algorithms — to monitor public spaces during the ongoing Covid-19 public health emergency and in the months after the pandemic subsides.”

The paper later predicted “violent extremists and other criminals who have historically maintained an interest in avoiding face recognition are likely to opportunistically seize upon public safety measures recommending the wearing of face masks to hinder the effectiveness of face recognition systems in public spaces by security partners.”

Last October, masks were ordered prohibited in Hong Kong in response to protestors using them in an effort to evade China’s sophisticated surveillance state. Protestors wore masks originally to protect their anonymity in escalating clashes with police and mainland Chinese authorities. 

This tactic was surely noticed by Department of Homeland officials. 

The memo went on to state “We assess face recognition systems used to support security operations in public spaces will be less effective while widespread public use of facemasks, including partial and full face covering, is practiced by the public to limit the spread of Covid-19.”

Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection uses AI powered facial recognition software on international travelers and claims the tech is not used on American citizens. They have previously claimed the technology works on faces partially covered by masks.

Last March, Chinese company Hanwang Technology Ltd claimed that they now have the capability to establish facial recognition technology even with masks. These claims can not yet be corroborated. Facial recognition technology is already tricky and the widespread wearing of masks as a measure against coronavirus further complicates the technology.

According to the ACLU, Amazon’s nascent facial recognition technology falsely identified 27 different pro-athletes as suspected criminals. 

According to a Freedom of Information request filed by Wired, the level of inaccuracy demonstrated by Amazon is par for the course. Making matters worse, a 2016 study established  that facial recognition software “disproportionately targeted people with dark skin.” 


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