The Intercept - July 16, 2020

While doctors and politicians still struggle to convince Americans to take the barest of precautions against Covid-19 by wearing a mask, the Department of Homeland Security has an opposite concern, according to an “intelligence note” found among the BlueLeaks trove of law enforcement documents: Masks are breaking police facial recognition.

The rapid global spread and persistent threat of the coronavirus has presented an obvious roadblock to facial recognition’s similar global expansion. Suddenly everyone is covering their faces. Even in ideal conditions, facial recognition technologies often struggle with accuracy and have a particularly dismal track record when it comes to identifying faces that aren’t white or male. Some municipalities, startled by the civil liberties implications of inaccurate and opaque software in the hands of unaccountable and overly aggressive police, have begun banning facial recognition software outright. But the global pandemic may have inadvertently provided a privacy fix of its own — or for police, a brand new crisis.

A Homeland Security intelligence note dated May 22 expresses this law enforcement anxiety, as public health wisdom clashes with the prerogatives of local and federal police who increasingly rely on artificial intelligence tools. The bulletin, drafted by the DHS Intelligence Enterprise Counterterrorism Mission Center in conjunction with a variety of other agencies, including Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “examines the potential impacts that widespread use of protective masks could have on security operations that incorporate face recognition systems — such as video cameras, image processing hardware and software, and image recognition algorithms — to monitor public spaces during the ongoing Covid-19 public health emergency and in the months after the pandemic subsides.”

The Minnesota Fusion Center, a post-9/11 intelligence agency that is part of a controversial national network, distributed the notice on May 26, as protests were forming over the killing of George Floyd. In the weeks that followed, the center actively monitored the protests and pushed the narrative that law enforcement was under attack. Email logs included in the BlueLeaks archive show that the note was also sent to city and state government officials and private security officers in Colorado and, inexplicably, to a hospital and a community college.

Curiously, the bulletin fixates on a strange scenario: “violent adversaries” of U.S. law enforcement evading facial recognition by cynically exploiting the current public health guidelines about mask usage. “We assess violent extremists and other criminals who have historically maintained an interest in avoiding face recognition,” the bulletin reads, “are likely to opportunistically seize upon public safety measures recommending the wearing of face masks to hinder the effectiveness of face recognition systems in public spaces by security partners.” The notice concedes that “while we have no specific information that violent extremists or other criminals in the United States are using protective face coverings to conduct attacks, some of these entities have previously expressed interest in avoiding face recognition and promulgated simple instructions to conceal one’s identity, both prior to and during the current Covid-19 pandemic.” This claim is supported by a single reference to a member of an unnamed “white supremacist extremist online forum” who suggested attacks on critical infrastructure sites “while wearing a breathing mask to hide a perpetrators [sic] identity.” The only other evidence given is internet chatter from before the pandemic.

But the bulletin also reflects a broader surveillance angst: “Face Recognition Systems Likely to be Less Effective as Widespread Wear of Face Coverings for Public Safety Purposes Continue,” reads another header. Even if Homeland Security seems focused on hypothetical instances of violent terrorists using cloth masks to dodge smart cameras, the new public health status quo represents a clear threat to algorithmic policing: “We assess face recognition systems used to support security operations in public spaces will be less effective while widespread public use of facemasks, including partial and full face covering, is practiced by the public to limit the spread of Covid-19.” Even after mandatory mask orders are lifted, the bulletin frets, the newly epidemiologically aware American public is likely to keep wearing them, which would “continue to impact the effectiveness of face recognition systems.” ...
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