Anonymity and Security of Protestors: Can Masks Really Protect your Identity?

Masks may protect people from being infected or infecting others with diseases transmitted by respiratory droplets or other airborne means. Masks may also help to disguise people’s identities. However, this might not be the case for too long. There are companies developing periocular recognition technologies to recognize people’s faces based on partial images of the face. Periocular recognition technologies focused on using the eye areas of a human face for recognition. Although periocular recognition technology is still under development and not widely used, it is worth thinking that how this technology can be used in different ways and how our images and actions in public may affect how we are recognized and identified.

For the past months, people in major cities of North America were back on the streets to protest amid the pandemic happening around the world. Two of those unfortunate incidents that led to these protests are: George Floyd being killed while being arrested by the Minneapolis police officers and the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet after her mother called the Toronto police to take her to Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Protestors are now facing not only health concerns but also law enforcement surveillance.

There are various ways in which individuals can protect themselves while participating in a protest, from their safety to their digital privacy.  Many online resources have stressed the importance of being anonymous in protesting against police brutality. The anonymity is an important factor as it can help protestors avoid being identified by the authorities, attracting unwanted surveillance and other possible negative consequences. There is significant risk of surveillance for people participating in a protest. Journalists and fellow protestors may have recorded or live streamed the protest and relevant events or posted on social media. This kind of footages might not only be documenting what have happened, but also might be used to identify the protestors. In certain situations, being recognized or identified as participating in a protest might result in negative consequences, such as individuals losing their jobs.

Previously on IPilogue, “Facial Recognition Technology: What have we consented to?” discussed about facial recognition technology and Clearview AI and the relevant privacy law matters in Canada.  “The Unforeseen Consequence of Uploading Your Mask Selfie” has pointed out how the facial recognition technology works and how uploading mask selfies may have an unintended effect of enriching the training data for the algorithm.

People (especially in Asia) have used masks long before this pandemic. Masks have been used when people were sick, allergic to something, facing air pollution, working in a hazardous environment, not wearing make up or preferring to disguise their identity. Due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, people outside Asia started to view the face coverings differently. At the beginning of this year, there were different thoughts as to whether masks can prevent the virus from transmission. One of the arguments against wearing masks is that it would provide a false sense of security for people and people might act less carefully. This might also be true in the situation for people believing that masks can conceal their identity.

On the one hand, the mask can provide protection to the person who is wearing it so that person will be less likely to be exposed to possible COVID-19 infection, since in some circumstances, physical distance cannot be kept. To some extent, marks (with protective glasses and other protective gear) can protect the person when there is tear gas or pepper spray. Also, to some extent, the mask can prevent the person from being identified by the facial recognition technology used by law enforcement surveillance.

However, on the other hand, the mask needs to be used properly in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Though masks might be medical grade, they are not always helpful in protecting the person from teargas or pepper spray. Moreover, there is periocular recognition algorithm being developed for recognizing people with partial images. Rank One Computing in the United States and BioID in Germany both developed the periocular technology for commercial use. While Rank One Computing specified law enforcement as one of their potential clients, BioID focused mostly on biometric authentication services and stated that their service separated identity from biometrics.

Periocular recognition technology was first introduced in 2009 to enhance the performance of iris recognition algorithms. The periocular recognition algorithms currently developed by Rank One Computing uses only the eye and eyebrow regions of the face for recognition. Therefore, it can detect the human faces even when they are wearing masks. After the successful recognition of human faces, the periocular recognition algorithms will then proceed to the identification stage which is similar to the templates that face recognition algorithms use.

Periocular recognition technology as well as facial recognition and iris recognition technologies are not only developed for the use of law enforcement, but also for identify verification in retail, financial services, consumer electronic devices and healthcare sectors. These technologies can do more than preventing identity fraud. On the one hand, people expect law enforcement to investigate crimes using the most updated technology available when watching TV shows like Forensic Files or fictional procedural dramas. However, on the other hand, people feared that the authority might be using the most updated technology available for surveillance purposes on protestors or just ordinary citizens. The worries about one’s privacy became more imminent as the risk of surveillance increases.

The periocular recognition technology is relatively new and not yet attract much attention. It is also unknown as to how Canadian courts would react to periocular recognition results, either on a privacy perspective or as evidence in criminal law cases. Nonetheless, the concerns about privacy, human rights and civil liberty threatened by the use of facial recognition surveillance in Canada surely has been rising among various groups and individual. It is clear that people are becoming more and more concerned about their appearance in public, with or without masks.

Written by Ya-En Cheng, a second year JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. Ya-En is also an IP Innovation Clinic Fellow.

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