Do coronavirus masks provide protest protection?

Arsonists, looters and rioters who think they evaded U.S. law enforcement this past week because they wore face masks might be in for a surprise.

Not long after the CDC recommended wearing cloth face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19, a company introduced face recognition technology designed to identify people who are wearing masks, be it to ward off coronavirus or conceal their identify while committing crimes. 

Brendan Klare, co-founder and CEO of Rank One Computing in Denver, said his company’s new technology “can be deployed with our law enforcement partners’’ that include 25 agencies in the United States. 

Brendan Klare, co-founder and CEO of Rank One Computing.

“What we have released in direct response to COVID is what we call periocular recognition algorithm,’’ Klare told USA TODAY. “It’s very similar to a face recognition algorithm. It’s just the eyes and eyebrows only. So obviously it works with masks.”

Well, not so obviously.

  • A Florida sheriff well known for his use of face recognition technology expressed doubts about the claims.
  • A U.S. government study of the new technology has been delayed.
  • And in the wake of a white police officer killing George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, the discussion about law enforcement’s use of face recognition technology has been renewed.

“Nobody has answered the question of how they can assure that this technology doesn’t contribute to existing police abuses,’’ said Neema Guliana, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Until you answer that question, I think the notion that this is technology that can be used by law enforcement is pretty concerning.’’

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Lots of questions are being asked

Which U.S. law enforcement agencies have used face recognition technology during the George Floyd protests and accompanying unrest?

“I would say most of the major cities are likely using technology for investigative purposes,’’ said Shaun Moore, CEO of, which provides facial recognition technology.

The Minneapolis Police Department, under siege by arsonists and protesters the day after Floyd’s death, does not use face recognition technology, said John Elder, director of public relations for the police department.

Demonstrators run during protests in Minneapolis on Saturday, May 30, 2020.

“We do not possess any of that technology,’’ Elder told USA Today on Tuesday by email message.

All 50 states have access to the face recognition technology and many states are implementing it, said Benji Hutchinson, vice president of federal business for NEC Corporation of America. Hutchinson said NEC, based in Japan, and the two other leading biometrics technology companies collectively have contracts with each of the states.

A protester smashes a window at the CNN center Friday May 29, 2020 in Atlanta. They carried signs and chanted their messages of outrage over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Law enforcement agencies also can access the face recognition system operated by the FBI or subscribe to services offered by numerous vendors, said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County in Florida. 

Gualtieri, a leading proponent of the face recognition technology in the law enforcement community, said it’s impossible to say how many law enforcement agencies are using the technology. But he said he thinks the number is “very few,’’ in part because of associated costs.

Sheriff and chairperson, Bob Gualtieri, of Pinellas county, Fla., speaks during a state commission meeting as they investigate the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre and how Broward school district and others access threats on Tuesday, July 10, 2018, in Sunrise, Fla.

Why is the ACLU so concerned about this, and what’s the argument in favor of law enforcement using the technology?

“Think about the reality of what that means for people attending protests,” said Guliana of the ACLU. “That means that they have to fear that they will be identified by law enforcement in situations where we’ve already seen police violence targeted at peaceful protesters.

“It means that they have to worry about being identified by law enforcement when many people rightfully have extreme distrust about how that will affect their lives and whether that will lead to further abuse.’’

Hutchinson, the NEC executive who has been working in the industry for 15 years, said privacy concerns are legitimate.

“Surveillance is the hot button topic with live video cameras and streaming algorithms that are detecting and matching faces in real time,’’ he said.  “And that use is not widely deployed, if at all, in the United States. And that’s important to know.’’

What’s with the Big Brother talk?

There are no federal laws or regulations governing law enforcement’s use of face recognition technology, and that seems to have fueled speculation about how the face recognition technology system works.

“They think there’s cameras on every corner and it’s all connected and there’s a giant computer and that’s just not the case,’’ Hutchinson said.

Or, as Klare of Rank One Computing said of the conjecture he hears, “Like, you walk by a camera and law enforcement comes and nabs you like a robot. That is not how it’s done.’’

So how is it done?

“A lot of times the best images we get are residences or businesses that have camera systems and somebody’s committed a crime and they provide with you a video system,’’ said Gualtieri, the sheriff from Pinellas County in Florida. “Then will put those into facial recognition and see if you get a match.’’

The evidence is not admissible in a court of law but it can help identify people as part of an investigation, Gualtieri said.

But privacy concerns persist due to the likes of Clearview AI, a company that has touted its facial recognition software and a database of three billion images scraped from the Internet. In January, the New York Times reported that Clearview claimed more than 600 law enforcement agencies had begun using the company’s services in the past year.

Law enforcement agencies are expected to be limited to searching government photos such as driver’s licenses photos and mugshots of convicted criminals as opposed to photos posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and other social media sites from which Clearview says it collects photos.

Last month, the ACLU sued Clearview AI and said the lawsuit was designed “to bring an end to the company’s unlawful, privacy-destroying surveillance activities.”

In a news release, the ACLU added, “Clearview claims that, through this enormous database, it can instantaneously identify the subject of a photograph with unprecedented accuracy, enabling covert and remote surveillance of Americans on a massive scale.”

Are criminals going to get away with crimes in part because the face masks they’re wearing will thwart face recognition software?

Among the top authorities is Anil Jain, a professor at Michigan State and well respected in the field of face recognition technology.

“It all depends on what portion of the face is being covered,’’  he said. “Sometimes it might have a shadow appear on your eyes. Eyes are very important. Eyes are the most important views in face recognition. In fact, even from a social perspective, reading a person’s eyes, it’s same thing for algorithm.

“So using eyes alone, you can do 75 percent of the job. Provided the person is not wearing sunglasses or anything.’’

But criminals have been wearing masks long before the coronavirus crisis hit, and Gualtieri, sheriff from in Pinellas County, said he knows what to do when face recognition technology isn’t effective for catching criminals.

“You just got to go back to the old-school way,’’ he said

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus masks: Are they better at protests or identity protection?