Travel TechnologyNew research and test event deliver surprisingly accurate results.

Face Off: Can facial recognition work while wearing a mask?

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The research used six face/iris-acquisition systems and 10 matching algorithms on 582 volunteers, representing 60 countries to address racial and ethnic diversity.
The research used six face/iris-acquisition systems and 10 matching algorithms on 582 volunteers, representing 60 countries to address racial and ethnic diversity. Photo Credit: Getty Images/AnnaStills

A test conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate revealed that facial-recognition technology might reduce the need for travellers to remove their face masks at airports or other ports of entry.

Contrary to our collective smartphone face-detection experiences, the platforms and configurations tested delivered accuracy rates as high as 96% for subjects who were wearing protective face coverings.

The research, conducted in Q4 2020 at the directorate's 2020 Biometric Technology Rally in Maryland, involved six face/iris-acquisition systems and 10 matching algorithms. To address the need for greater racial and ethnic diversity in facial-recognition tech, the in-person event tested 582 diverse test volunteers, representing 60 countries.

Preliminary findings released this month were based on the systems' ability to reliably match images of each volunteer with and without a variety of masks, the processing time for each instance, and the volunteers' overall satisfaction with the experience.

Not unexpectedly, the performance varied greatly among the products. More surprising was just how effective the highest accuracy rates were:

Without face masks, the median performance-identification rate was about 93%, with the best-performing system correctly identifying people 100% of the time.

With face masks, the median performance-identification rate was a solid 77%, with the best-performing system correctly identifying people 96% of the time.

With numbers like that, the Covid-19 risks involved in traveller mask removal could be greatly reduced.

"This isn't a perfect, 100% solution," said Arun Vemury, director of S&T's Biometric and Identity Technology Center, "but it may reduce risks for many travellers, as well as the frontline staff working in airports, who no longer have to ask all travellers to remove masks."

The organisation expects to release final test results in the coming weeks, which will published here.

This is an abridged version of an original article that first appeared in Northstar Meetings Group.

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