A Faceless Future
By Rachael Talyor
As the everyday wearing of medical face masks makes it easier for criminals to cover up, technology is playing catch up!
The spread of the Coronavirus pandemic has led to many changes across the world, but the most visual is face masks. Designed to protect us from catching the virus, and also to protect others, masks are a positive investment in health. They are also, however, expected to lead to a boom in crime, as these now everyday items can also be used to obscure identities from CCTV cameras and security staff.
In the US, police have reported a rise in crimes by perpetrators wearing medical face masks. In March, two gunmen in masks stole $200,000 from the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, New York, while in California a masked man stole $780-worth of energy drinks from a Walmart. It seems the masks are a perfect cover for crimes high and low.
“In the past if you did a search warrant and you found surgical masks, that would be highly indicative of something [suspicious],” FBI special agent Lisa MacNamara told the Associated Press. “Now everybody has masks or latex gloves.”
In the UK, we are already seeing evidence of these types of crimes emerging, and a spike is expected as lockdown regulations relax. Last week, police in Nottingham were called to a discount supermarket in Aspley after a man was reported to have attacked two members of staff before forcing them to hand over cash. The man was described as wearing a beanie hat, coat, gloves and a face mask.
As well as obscuring identities, the widespread use of masks also makes it harder for security personnel to identify suspicious behaviour. “What constitutes someone behaving suspiciously is hard enough to define as it is,” said Francis Dodsworth, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kingston, just outside London, in an interview with CNN. “The main problem that people wearing masks throws up is the sheer volume of people suddenly covering their faces. It could create opportunities for people who want to cover their face for nefarious reasons. They could potentially now do so without raising suspicion.”
As for CCTV, images of perpetrators with obscured faces are mostly useless. “Even where CCTV images are available, facial recognition algorithms use the nose, mouth and chin,” says Tania Jolley, chief executive of DNA Security Solutions. “Without these features, the certainty of identification is heavily compromised. In this scenario, you can’t depend on CCTV cameras to provide evidence that will stand up in court. It doesn’t create a forensic connection.”
This is why some technology firms are working to create new systems that can can’t be cheated by masks. DNA Security Solutions offers a security system that tags criminals using a substance that is non-toxic and invisible, made from 99.9% purified water, a fluorescent vegetable dye and a unique synthetic DNA code that ties them to that particular event. The alarm can be triggered silently by staff, meaning criminals don’t know they have been tagged, but they can be tested at a later date after leaving the venue.
Several tech companies are also trying to reinvent CCTV to create systems that can identify people even when they are wearing a mask. One such company is Chinese artificial intelligence start up SenseTime, which claims to have created facial recognition software based on a person’s eyes and upper nose. Its regular algorithm uses 240 facial feature key points, but it can also make a match using just the parts of the face visible when wearing a mask.
Such technology, however, is far from being commonplace. In the meantime, security staff will be called to trust in-the-minute instincts rather than tech or traditional training as face masks become more widespread. In a time of general high tension, this will undoubtedly can make an already tough job even more difficult.
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