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Mandates are gone, but mask detection technology has made its mark – TechCrunch

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when mask mandates became common in both public and private, technology providers began selling products that they claimed could detect whether or not someone was wearing a mask. . With eye-catching press releases and demos, the vendors attracted the attention of critical critics who were skeptical of the solutions’ capabilities and potential surveillance applications. Allied Market Research optimistically predicted that the market would be worth more than a billion dollars by 2027.

Now, as mask mandates are lifted in countries around the world, albeit prematurely, according to some health experts, the dust is starting to settle. While the demand for mask-sensing technologies is steadily declining, the products have had far-reaching effects with implications for privacy and security, interviews with vendors suggest.

For example, Shaun Moore, CEO of Trueface, says he doesn’t see customers who’ve already bought Trueface’s mask-sensing technology cutting back on their use anytime soon. Like many of the vendors offering mask detection as a service, Trueface, which was acquired by biometric security company Pangiam in 2021, came from a facial recognition background. The company began applying algorithms to camera images to extract a vast amount of data, including license plate recognition and object detection, before expanding its focus to biometrics.

“We started to develop both mask detection and the ability to do facial recognition with a mask Around April 2020, following the COVID-19 outbreak in the US About 50% of our customers asked us to update our software with mask detection so they could programmatically tell their clients to lower their mask,” Moore told TechCrunch via email. “We plan to keep mask detection and recognition with a mask as part of our [product] in case they are needed again.”

As regular readers of this site know, facial recognition is a flashpoint of controversy. While companies like Trueface claim they only engage in “responsible” implementations of the technology, recent history is littered with examples of facial recognition abuse, such as software developed by Huawei and others to recognize members of the targeted Uyghur minority group. . Numerous studies, including the landmark Gender Shades project, have also shown that facial recognition technologies are susceptible to various biases, including gender, racial, and ethnic biases. Police have made several wrongful arrests of black suspects based on flawed facial recognition tests.

Trueface declined to name which customers are currently using its facial recognition and mask detection products, but the company previously won a contract from the US Air Force to “ensure base access and security.”

Motorola Solutions, another vendor that began offering mask detection products during the pandemic, says that any customer who has purchased its Avigilon Control Center 7 (ACC7) video management software and the necessary hardware can still access its detection technology. of masks free of charge. (ACC7 is maintained by Avigilon, a Canadian surveillance camera company that Motorola Solutions acquired in March 2018.) Motorola Solutions did not provide a list of clients when asked, but according to NBC, Avigilon at one point had contracts with school districts, police departments and housing authorities in the US.

“[Our] ‘No Face Mask Detection’ technology is a video-based detection technology that can… detect objects in the camera’s field of view, classify them as human, and determine if the subject is not wearing a mask,” said Elizabeth Skube , spokesperson for Motorola Solutions. she told TechCrunch in an email. “In addition to alerts for security operators, users can generate company-wide reports with statistical analysis over time to help employers address concerns… For now, the feature will remain available to employers. customers disable it or continue to use it at their discretion.

Like Motorola Solutions, Rhombus Systems, a security systems provider based in Sacramento, California, began including face mask detection as part of its standard platform several months ago (in January 2021). Companies can use it to receive alerts via push notifications or email whenever the system detects that someone is not wearing a mask, CEO Garrett Larsson told TechCrunch via email.

“We know we have a handful of customers using it, but it never became a widely used feature,” Larsson said by email. “We have no immediate plans to cancel the feature, but it is something we will continually monitor based on whether or not it looks like mask mandates will return.”

In a press release last October, Rhombus claimed to count school districts, health care providers, municipal governments and Fortune 500 companies among its clients.

Alert features like those offered by Motorola Solutions and Rhombus worry privacy experts, who worry the technologies will normalize higher levels of surveillance, giving managers ammunition to punish disadvantaged employees. Amazon notoriously uses algorithms to audit warehouse worker productivity at a granular level, blaming workers for spending too much time scanning barcodes or sorting products into containers.

Coincidentally, a year ago, Amazon made a big fuss over a technology called Distance Assistant that the company developed to monitor warehouse workers’ adherence to social distancing rules. Distance Assistant is still available for Amazon warehouse managers to use but is no longer required, spokeswoman Barbara Agrait told TechCrunch via email, reflecting new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US diseases

Other providers, such as Tryolabs, based in Montevideo, Uruguay, have applied this type of technology to more public places, including physical stores. Tryolabs, an AI consultancy, developed a mask detection product called MaskCam that generates statistics on the use of masks in real time. Co-founder and COO Ernesto Rodriguez says interest has faded compared to the early days of the pandemic, but MaskCam was set up at one point at the Bozeman Montana Airport in Belgrade, Montana to count people that passed and determine the percentage of them that used a mask.

“As interest in this particular solution is waning, Tryolabs continues to focus on investigating other problems based on the same core technologies. The models and technologies developed for this particular solution can be applied to other use cases.” Rodriguez told TechCrunch via email. “The same libraries can be used and customized in other visual AI solutions, such as in retail to count the number of people entering and exiting physical stores, or in logistics and supply chain for predictive maintenance scenarios.”

Mission advancement has been one of the defining themes of the pandemic when it comes to the tech industry, as evidenced by sales of facial-recognition temperature kiosks with dubious effectiveness (not to mention location-tracking apps). If it wasn’t clear before, hindsight reveals that mask detection was a Trojan horse for more problematic technologies, including surveillance technologies, in the workplace and elsewhere.

As the American Civil Liberties Union notes: “Excessive efforts to curb and track COVID-19 leave the door open for a permanent surveillance apparatus that will not dissolve once the dust of public emergency settles… We have a duty to ensure that the COVID-19 19 data surveillance infrastructures do not take hold to survive the effects of this once-in-a-century pandemic.”

The need for face mask detection, if there ever was one, will eventually go away. But customers who bought the technology might be inclined to keep it for less ethical purposes.