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Opinion: Masks Are a Temporary Barrier to Facial Recognition

People who see facial recognition as a threat to privacy are attempting to thwart these systems by wearing masks. But, tech firms are already working on ways to identify individuals even with their faces covered.

While wearing a protective mask, Jimmy Smart, 32, walks his dog in the Streeterville neighborhood on April 1, 2020. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
(TNS) — Facial recognition surveillance systems are ominous. People see how these tools threaten privacy and civil liberties and consider ways they might resist being tracked and profiled everywhere they go. One option that is regularly tossed around is the idea of frustrating identification systems with clothing and accessories that obscure and distort our appearance.

Until now, it’s mostly been art installations and academic projects experimenting with face-jamming. But with the spread of COVID-19 fueling expanded surveillance as well as the number of people who are wearing face masks, scarves and bandanas, there’s a flicker of hope that masks will make face recognition harder and harder to implement.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to opt-out so easily?

Unfortunately, more people covering their faces won’t meaningfully thwart face recognition technology, or make it any less urgent to grapple with the threats that go along with it.

Face coverings are important for public health. But they are just a speed bump for facial recognition. These systems are still flawed and they still present huge problems for privacy and civil rights. If anything, COVID-19 is likely to spur more, not less, facial surveillance.

In the U.S., the controversial facial recognition startup company Clearview AI is said to be talking with state agencies about using its technology to “track patients infected by the coronavirus”; in China, facial recognition software is linked to a phone app that codes “people based on their contagion risk” and determines when they’re cleared to enter an array of public spaces; and, in Russia, facial recognition technology is being deployed to track people who violate quarantine orders.

Since every crisis gets exploited, companies have seized on the narrative that government investment in facial recognition technology during a pandemic is a win-win. They are promising benefits that go beyond immediate health concerns, such as upgraded transportation and crowd management systems.

In some contexts, it’s harder for technology to identify a half-covered face. But companies are already creating workarounds that make educated guesses about what masked faces look like. Even if these adaptations turn out to be less effective than advertised, masks still won’t protect us from the oppressive and harmful effects of face surveillance.

We can expect government and private sector companies to keep using the technology, even if face masks around every corner start to render results more flawed. People don’t have the power to resist facial surveillance at scale. Technological cat-and-mouse games are exhausting and favor players with the most resources.

As before the pandemic hit, people of color and other marginalized populations will continue to bear the brunt of surveillance hardest. In the long run, everyone can be worn down and overwhelmed by what it takes to be hypervigilant.

Finally, it’s wrong to place all the burden of privacy and civil liberties protections on individuals. The very idea that our rights need to be safeguarded through guerilla warfare gives lawmakers a pass from upholding their part of the social contract.

Now more than ever, they need to be vigilant. Surveillance powers that are given now won’t be easy to rollback. Instead, they’ll be used to expand surveillance infrastructure and further the expectation that being watched everywhere is a normal part of life rather than something that we should tolerate only when completely necessary and justified. That’s why organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation feel the need to craft statements like, “Face Surveillance Is Not the Solution to the COVID-19 Crisis.”

It’s natural to feel conflicted about surveillance in times of crisis. But as lawmakers ponder how best to ensure public health while maintaining our civil rights, we should advocate for deeper and structural protections, revitalize our commitments to both public health and human rights and take little comfort in coincidental windfalls like obfuscation through covering our face.

©2020 New York Daily News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.