Facial recognition firm can ID masked faces in a crowd

A little-known Chinese company said that it has developed a facial technology that can identify people in a crowd wearing face masks, as people around the country don the protective gear to reduce their risk of Covid-19 infection.

Why it matters: Tech companies have been working on facial recognition software that can identify people with very little facial data.

  • While the technology isn’t new, it has become increasingly relevant as China deals with the fallout from Covid-19, a highly transmissible flu-like virus that was first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December.
  • Mask wearers have presented problems for facial recognition systems that rely on identifying points around the mouth, nose, and eyes.

Details: Beijing-based Hanwang Technology said that it has developed facial recognition capabilities that can identify every masked person in a crowd of up to 30 people within a second, Reuters reported.

  • The company offers two products that use the technology. Its “multi-channel” product uses multiple cameras and can be used for crowds whereas the other identifies one person at a time, at the entrance to a building, for example.
  • Hanwang’s facial recognition software is used by China’s Ministry of Public Security, along with around 200 other clients in Beijing, Huang Lei, the company’s president, told Reuters. The company is looking to expand across China.
  • Hanwang started working on the technology in January as the outbreak in China began to accelerate, and rolled it out a month later.
  • The Covid-19 outbreak has resulted in extra surveillance measures and data collection to track the spread of the virus, a move that has garnered mixed reactions online.

Context: Several Chinese companies have touted their abilities to identify people wearing masks since the beginning of the outbreak.

  • Artificial intelligence unicorn Sensetime said in mid-February that it had developed a similar system to Hanwang’s which can identify masked faces in more limited applications, such as identifying employees entering a building. The company uses 240 points on a person’s face to identify an individual, using the parts that are visible to match a face with an identity.
  • Megvii in February was reported to be seeking a loan for research and development, which, in part would focus on identifying people wearing face masks.
  • Meanwhile, Nanjing-based Minivision was last month commissioned by the city’s government to develop a similar system that can also measure body temperature.

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