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New algorithms can police whether people are complying with public health guidance. The practice raises familiar questions about data privacy.
Companies that have developed mask recognition software say that they ultimately want this technology to be used in broad ways that help people set policy or enhance awareness campaigns.
“If we can compute the number [of people who are complying with the mask mandates], people can make policies and monitor on whether or not they need to do another campaign to push mask usage,” says Alan Descoins, the chief technology officer of Tryolabs, a company based in Montevideo, Uruguay, that’s developed mask recognition software. “Or if people start getting bored about COVID, and start not wearing masks, then there might need to be more publicity to make people aware.”
LeewayHertz’s algorithm, for example, could be used in real time and integrated with closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. From a given frame in a video, it isolates images and organizes them into two categories, people who are wearing masks and those who are not. Currently, this recognition software is being used in “stealth mode” in multiple settings in the United States and Europe. Restaurants and hotels are using it to make sure the staff is complying with wearing masks. One airport on the East Coast of the United States is also testing the technology on-site, says Taykar.
These private companies would have control over this data and how it’s deployed. Department stores could use it to dole out face coverings to noncompliant patrons, for instance, or a company could fire an employee who refuses to comply with wearing masks in the workplace.
While Taykar sees a strong reason to use mask recognition software in private spaces, public use might be more fraught: “If you’re in Times Square and there’s no social distancing, what do you do with that data? Would you want to put their photo on the billboards?”
The gaps in best intentions
James Lewis sees how mask recognition could be useful for maintaining compliance during the pandemic. But as director of the Technology Policy Program for the Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., he is more concerned about the lack of rules that govern how this collected data gets used.
As it stands, the U.S. does not have a federal law that governs data privacy. Instead, the country relies on a patchwork of regulations relating to specific sectors, such as health, financial transactions, and marketing. In addition, corporations and entities that collect our private data don’t have to tell us what’s happening to it.