Perhaps the most-worn accessories of 2020, face masks mark an unexpected new constant in people’s lives providing necessary protection against COVID-19—but they’re also known to pose some trouble for contemporary facial recognition systems.
The Homeland Security Department, one of the government’s biggest biometrics systems users, is now steering research to confront the complexities limiting existing technology and help push forward tools to safely verify people’s identities at security checkpoints in a pandemic.
Initial results from one recent effort “are actually quite promising,” according to Arun Vemury, director of DHS’ Biometric and Identity Technology Center.
“We’re getting to the point with this technology, where at least from the preliminary results, it looks like there’s some combinations of biometric acquisition systems, the camera systems and the matching algorithms—when you combine them together, you could match eight or nine out of 10 people without asking them to remove their masks,” Vemury told Nextgov during a recent interview. “This means that for the vast majority of people in airports, they might not have to remove their masks anymore to even go through the security checks, and we could do a really good job of still matching them. So, I think it’s very promising from that perspective. Is it 100%? Is it perfect? No. But it reduces the number of people who potentially have to take their masks off.”