woman wearing face mask

New research has shown that even the most advanced facial recognition algorithms can only identify as little as 50 per cent of faces when masks are worn.


Although necessary in the pandemic, mask-wearing appears to be posing a serious challenge to even the most advanced facial recognition systems, meaning that security and policing may be adversely affected.  The recently published preliminary research results from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology showed that the failure rate of facial recognition algorithms when faced with a mask, could be anything from 2 to 50 per cent.

The test was carried out by drawing digital masks onto faces from border-crossing photos and by comparing these photos with a database of unmasked faces. The research used 6.2 million images of 1 million people and involved 89 algorithms.

The Result

Whereas ideal conditions should yield only a 0.3 per cent failure rate, the addition of digital masks to images led to failure rates of 5 per cent and upwards, with many algorithms (that were developed pre-pandemic) failing between 20 per cent to 50 per cent of the time.

What About Clear Masks?

Aspects of human communication can also be affected by the use of masks and face coverings.  For example, for the 12 million people in the UK who are deaf or suffer from degrees of hearing loss, an opaque face mask can create a serious barrier to communication e.g. stopping lip-reading and obscuring other the visual cues and facial expressions.

The National Deaf Children’s Society, among others, has been campaigning for clear face masks or face masks with a kind of clear window that allows the mouth to be seen. Companies are now producing these masks such as the FDA-approved ‘Leaf’ transparent mask by Redcliffe Medical Devices in Michigan.  The Leaf Mask has a filter and an anti-fog coating. Top of the range versions of Leaf even includes features like a UVC light (to kill pathogens), tiny fans, and even sensors for air quality, humidity, and dust.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The wearing of masks may be an important way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by asymptomatic people and to improve confidence as lockdown restrictions are eased but can create a real challenge to those with hearing problems who need to see the mouth of the person they are communicating with.  They can also create a more general challenge to communications where facial expressions are concerned. 

Mask-wearing in shops and at other sites is, however, likely to be helpful for retail businesses by boosting the confidence of shoppers, and there appear to be many business opportunities and niches for businesses that make masks and other equipment to help create retain social distancing and provide protection while using business premises e.g. screens/visors.  These opportunities are likely to be met with more creative and imaginative solutions as time goes on while the world waits for vaccines and other treatments to be developed.

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