The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has resulted in many people bulk buying products. One of the more popular and subsequently hard to find items are face masks, regardless of there being conflicting reports about its effectiveness in stopping the spread fo the virus.

One aspect to the growing number of people wearing face masks is how this would impact facial recognition technology, which is something we’ve spoken about at length in the office.

The technology is not only used in government buildings in certain parts of the globe, but more importantly is employed by a number of smartphone makers for their devices.

So how have face masks impacted facial recognition software? According to Chinese firm Hanwang Technology Ltd. (also referred to as Hanvon), the impact has been minimal, especially as the company has worked to improve the accuracy of its software regardless of whether someone wears a mask or not.

The Beijing-based firm tells Reuters that it began working on improving its software in January this year, when people in the city started wearing more masks due to the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak.

To that end the company says it used a sample database of roughly 6 million unmasked faces, and a far smaller sample of masked ones, although it does not detail how many.

Machine learning was able to train its algorithm to achieve a recognition rate of 95 percent for masked faces, which is lower than the 99.5 percent for unmasked. Still this is a rather impressive rate, considering how much of a wearer’s face is obscured by the mask.

The system could also be used in potential coronavirus screening, and in particular the measuring of mask wearer’s temperature.

“If connected to a temperature sensor, it can measure body temperature while identifying the person’s name, and then the system would process the result, say, if it detects a temperature over 38 degrees,” Hanwang VP, Huang Lei told Reuters.

He adds that the system can recognise a crowd of up to 30 people in a few seconds, which could make the software a helpful added measure for screening in public areas. One of the clients that Hanwang works with is the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, so it certainly has applications there.

For now there has been no word of a rollout for the software, but it is interesting to see that firms are using the coronavirus outbreak to make their technology smarter. How this impacts a citizen’s right to privacy in future though, remains unclear.

[Image – Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash]