Daily US Times: As western countries are easing lockdown measures, it’s increasingly clear that we’re some way off society returning to anything resembling pre-Covid life. Surprisingly, western populations have largely obeyed instructions to remain indoors. But what appears now is that wearing masks is going to become new norm.
In fact, in many countries, lockdown efforts have been so effective that governments are now pondering how to gradually lift restrictions without freaking out compliant citizens.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently floated a way that citizens might feel comfortable emerging from isolation: face masks.
At the start of this month, Mr Johnson said: “As part of coming out of the lockdown, I do think face coverings will be useful,” claiming that masks will help give the public “confidence that they can go back to work.”
But the prospect of a new society in which the public conceals their faces from one another has wide-ranging implications for social interactions as well as security and crime.
“The main problem that people wearing masks throws up is the sheer volume of people suddenly covering their faces,” said Francis Dodsworth, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kingston, near London. “
He adds: “It could create opportunities for people who want to cover their face for nefarious reasons. They could potentially now do so without raising suspicion.”
Facial recognition becomes a new art
Mass mask-wearing could also complicate crime investigations, experts say, as facial recognition becomes an increasingly important part in tracking criminals. While facial recognition algorithms have got better at identifying patterns and human beings are very good at recognizing familiar faces, but facemasks throw new headaches into the mix.
Dodsworth said: “A lot of witnessing is already problematic. Even when a group of people witness the same crime, one person will see someone with a mustache and a hat, while another will see someone with a beard and sunglasses.”
Eilidh Noyes, lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Huddersfield in northern England, said CCTV footage is sometimes the only piece of evidence in an investigation, adding that at the moment we do not know exactly how facial masks will affect accuracy of human or algorithm face identification.
One Chinese firm has already claimed it has developed software that can accurately identify people, even if they are wearing masks. Experts, however still think we are far backward of this becoming a norm that can be used in all circumstances.
As Noyes said: “I think it’s important that if we see claims around a specific algorithm, we don’t then apply it to all algorithms because each has its own strengths and weakness. We still need to do a lot more research.”
Law enforcement agencies will face a lot of problems for obscuring faces, particularly when it comes to establishing what constitutes suspicious behavior. It was only last year that places like France and Hong Kong were passing laws making it illegal to obscure your face during a protest.
Dodsworth said police have to make difficult judgments on people’s motivations for covering their faces.
“What constitutes someone behaving suspiciously is hard enough to define as it is. The police will have to balance public health advice when justifying stopping someone and searching them.”
In much of the world, police have already been criticized for being needlessly heavy handed and overly zealous during the pandemic. Any new criteria will be a concern for minority groups who are already more likely to be subject ro racims, stopped, questioned and even shot at by police.
Adapting to new social cues
Mass covering of faces is, at least visibly, among the most dramatic of all the conavirus-prevention measures. It is not mandatory to wear mask in most of the western countries amid fears of invasion of privacy and human rights concerns, and the stigma has generally been against those wearing face coverings. It’s possible that may now shift to those who don’t.
What is going to be the new normal? Dodsworth says, people are being asked to be their own, and be they will be suggested to wear masks.
Dodsworth said: ”Normally, if you were walking on your own and saw someone in a mask, you might be concerned and avoid them. But now it’s less clear when and if you should be afraid.”
Jorge Elorza, mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, went a few step ahead as saying citizens should “socially shame” the maskless “so they fall in line.”