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How facial recognition systems are adapting to masks

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It’s surprising how quickly public opinion can change. Winding the clocks back 12 months, many of us would have looked at a masked individual in public with suspicion.

Now, some countries have enshrined face mask use in law. They’ve also been made compulsory in Victoria and are recommended in several other states.

One consequence of this is that facial recognition systems in place for security and crime prevention may no longer be able to fulfil their purpose. In Australia, most agencies are silent about the use of facial recognition.

But documents leaked earlier this year revealed Australian Federal Police and state police in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia all use Clearview AI, a commercial facial recognition platform. New South Wales police also admitted using a biometrics tool called PhotoTrac.

What is facial recognition?

Facial recognition involves using computing to identify human faces in images or videos, and then measuring specific facial characteristics. This can include the distance between eyes, and the relative positions of the nose, chin and mouth.

This information is combined to create a facial signature, or profile. When used for individual recognition – such as to unlock your phone – an image from the camera is compared to a recorded profile. This process of facial “verification” is relatively simple.

However, when facial recognition is used to identify faces in a crowd, it requires a significant database of profiles against which to compare the main image.

These profiles can be legally collected by enrolling large numbers of users into systems. But they’re sometimes collected through covert means.