Tech in the time of coronavirus: Artist designs masks that can UNLOCK smartphones using facial recognition technology
05/06/2020 // Michael Alexander // Views

As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.

If you’ve ever struggled with unlocking your phone when you have a protective face mask on, don’t worry – designer Danielle Baskin is currently developing the kind of gear she thinks you might need.

The gear in question? Resting Risk Face, a series of contoured face masks designed to unlock smartphones using facial recognition technology.

Baskin, a San Francisco-based designer, said she got the idea to make contoured masks after seeing people struggle to open their phones while wearing protective N95 masks.

The protective gear grew in demand after the COVID-19 outbreaks, which started in Wuhan, China. The masks became the public’s gear of choice since, according to the CDC, the N95 respirator is not just able to filter out 95 percent of airborne particles, but also pathogens such as bacteria and viruses.

However, the N95 masks’ opaque and feature-hiding nature has posed problems for those who have facial recognition technology on their phones.

"I was discussing whether or not N95 masks were effective as a protective measure against the coronavirus and someone brought up the fact that you couldn't unlock your phone while wearing one," Baskin told online magazine Dezeen.

"My immediate thought was to put a face on the mask," Baskin, whose artistic background involves finding innovative printing methods, added.

The masks, Baskin explained, are made by simply turning a 2D photo of someone’s face into a 3D image that can then be printed on a standard N95 mask.


"The new method I'm using creates a three-dimensional mask with a contoured face that actually does unlock phones that uses depth sensors," she explained. "You just have to set it as an additional face, since it's going to be a different shape than your own."

Baskin initially posted photos of the prototypes of the masks on her social media pages, where they gained substantial traction from netizens.

According to Baskin, she has already received around 1,200 pre-orders for the masks, including orders from places as varied as South Korea, Latvia, France, China and the United Kingdom. Baskin chalked this up to growing widespread concern about possible COVID-19 infections. (Related: Online retail giant Amazon removes any product mentioning “CORONAVIRUS” – including sanitizing products that actually kill coronavirus on surfaces.)

Her website for the masks, FaceID Masks, has also gained substantial traffic. According to Baskin, her website garnered 30,000 visits.

Baskin hopes that the facial recognition masks could be useful for people who have to wear them for work or because of illness.

"So many people in the medical industry have reached out saying that they'd love these, as well as cancer patients, people with severe seasonal allergies, and children," she said, noting that she is already thinking of expanding her line to include prints and designs aside from that of human faces.

"Faces might be one feature, but I think other unique prints would be great for those who need to wear masks on a daily basis for life," she said.

What happens in case the mask doesn’t work? Baskin says it has another function: instant recognition for your friends and family in crowded cities.

“Everyone is wearing a plain mask in major Chinese cities right now, and this would be so helpful to see your friends,” Baskin said.

Don't lose your masks

As convenient as they are, however, there's a risk to using this when it comes to bypassing facial recognition technology: identity theft.

Identity theft is particularly concerning given today's over-reliance on biometric identification such as facial recognition technology. According to The Balance, this is because it lulls users into having a false sense of security.

John Sileo, an identity theft expert, said users who rely on biometric technology such as facial recognition must exercise "due diligence" on protecting their identities if they are to avoid getting hacked by unsavory individuals.

"If we implement biometrics without doing our due diligence on protecting the identity, we are doomed to repeat history," Sileo said.

Associate Professor Terence Sim from the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has a similar sentiment.

“Given that facial recognition and other biometric systems are increasingly being used to protect valuable resources such as bank accounts and access to buildings, hackers will be attracted to break them,” Sim said in an interview with Channel News Asia.

Sources include:

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