Unmasking the Face Mask

 Putting on a face mask to hide your identity, like Clark Kent putting on his iconic glasses in Superman, may seem like a wild fantasy. Yet, in a world where your face is the key to so much, this can be reality. Privacy and health protection are strong incentives for wearing face masks, yet there is ongoing resistance. Lets try to unmask the resistance to face masks.


Is it a nose? Is it a mouth? It’s a face mask!

About 5 years ago I was able to observe how natural it was to wear a face mask in public in Japan when feeling under the weather. It was back in the Netherlands that I got culture-shocked by the complete absence of these masks. If we should believe popular news outlets these cultural differences are exactly the reason why Asia is listening to the mask advice, and the Western world not. Once you start to dig deeper however it becomes clear that there is more at play than just cultural differences. One major theme that is plaguing parts of the world is the distrust in the actual usefulness of the face mask. Peer research shows that more than half of the respondents are willing to wear a face mask if they understand the use of it.

The acceptance rate of face masks grows when additional functionalities are introduced. The prospect of no more painful cotton swabs up your nose seems especially enticing. Bioengineers at MIT and Harvard have developed a 3D printed strip to put inside face masks, that later can be analysed in the lab. This means they will be able to detect disease like SARS and COVID in a way less invasive method. It would also make the testing process a lot quicker, allowing us to continue on our normal day to day routine. As Jim Collins from MIT puts it; “You or I could use it on the way to and from work. Hospitals could use it for patients as they come in or wait in the waiting room as a pre-screen of who’s infected.”.

Cheyenne Randall

With great power comes great responsibility

Cultures do seem to clash when facial recognition is introduced to the game. Software company LeewayHertz has developed face mask recognition software, which can tell if a person is indeed wearing a face mask. It helps with the prevention of infectious diseases like COVID19 and can assist in making sure that everyone is wearing a mask in high-risk areas, like hospitals. In a country like China, these methods of surveillance are easily accepted and already in use. In Europe some professionals are questioning privacy safety; “face data is as precious as a fingerprint” said Deborah Raji from the AI Now Institute at New York University.

We have already determined that European people are more likely to put on a face mask when there is a direct benefit for themselves, but the same can’t be said when the benefit is towards others. In the before-mentioned survey, the c-mask was introduced to the respondents. This smart face mask,  developed by Donut Robotics, can transform spoken words into writing and transfer this to a smartphone or other smart device. Once the spoken has become written the possibilities are almost endless. Currently, developers are testing with translating texts, making minutes at meetings, and adding AR and VR options. It seems like a great solution for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and are normally dependent on lip reading. Yet, when asked if the respondents were willing to wear such a mask, the majority answered negatively. Stating that they don’t know any deaf people and it will not benefit them directly.

“face data is as precious as a fingerprint”

While companies are trying to create solutions, most Dutch people experience the masks simply as a burden. You and Superman are not the only ones wanting to hide their identity for instance, criminals are having a field day too. Not only is it hard to give a facial description of someone wearing a mask, but it is also easier for these lawbreakers to blend into a crowd. On top of that, facial recognition software has been able to work with fake beards, glasses, and heavy makeup, but it struggles when obstructing a large part of a human’s face. This either means having to take off our face masks every time we need to use an app or service that requires facial recognition, or that we have to find new ways of identifying ourselves.

Fresh Air

The battle of masks

It is the face mask wearer who can make or break society. And it isn’t even as simple as to point to total acceptance or disregard, like the Chinese society where face scanning is simply accepted as a regular daily thing vs. the Dutch mentality of ‘if it doesn’t benefit me I see no use in it’. Both can escalate society in a utopian or dystopian state. What does seem to matter is good communication, conveying why wearing the mask is important, and what the added benefits of the technological advancements are. But in a society where the president of the United States has been denying COVID19 well into the pandemic, it begs to wonder if the general public will ever be satisfied in their quest for information.

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