China mandates 3D-printed ‘photo’ face masks so face-recognition surveillance will still work

photo face mask

‘3D-printed photo face masks’ is chapter 22 of Insights from the Future, a book I’m writing about technology, innovation, and people … from the perspective of the future. Subscribe to my newsletter to keep in touch and get notified when the book publishes.

February 23, 2021

China’s central government has mandated the development and eventual use of photo face masks so that its extensive network of surveillance cameras will still work.

China has more than 220 million surveillance cameras in the country and sophisticated AI-driven facial recognition technology, but these have been largely useless since the January 2020 Coronavirus pandemic that devastated Wuhan and shut the country down for months. With face masks on, the artificial intelligence systems that match faces to known citizens don’t have enough data to make accurate determinations.

The result, according to the government, is a massive increase in crime.

“We have a 60% rise in property crime and vandalism,” said an official from the Ministry of Public Security. “This cannot continue. Social stability will be maintained.”

Others, however, say that the new freedoms Chinese citizens have experience as a result of COVID-19 are the real problems the state is worried about, and that China is simply trying to re-establish full control over when and where people travel around the country. With face masks, China’s still relatively new social credit system is failing, and low-status or non-compliant people are being allowed privileges the state does not want to grant.

The new masks can be 3D-printed or mass-produced, but all modern 3D printers in the country will be updated with software to ensure that the mask matches the actual owner’s face. According to security analysts who have examined them, the printed masks also contain steganographic data: information hidden in the printed facial details — that reveal information about where the mask was printed, what printer printed it, what image file was used, and when it was printed.

Assuming China’s surveillance system has been updated to read these codes, tracking people with masks could be an even easier task than tracking individuals who are not wearing masks.

“It’s much easier to read what is essentially a QR code and get a lot of data about someone than to match one face in a billion,” according to June Foster of the ACLU, which has studied the new masks. “This is very concerning.

In what was widely seen as a test of resuming normal life — and normal surveillance — China tried dropping mask discipline, of course, just a few months ago. The result was a reoccurrence of Coronavirus in Shanghai that killed nearly 10,000 people before the government reinstated masking regulations.

Again, this is a chapter of Insights from the Future, a book I’m writing about technology, innovation, and people … from the perspective of the future. Subscribe to my newsletter to keep in touch and get notified when the book publishes.

 


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