Of all the COVID-prevention measures, the mass covering of faces is, at least visibly, among the most dramatic. Masks are mandatory in most countries amid fears about human rights concerns and invasion of privacy, and the stigma has generally been against those wearing face coverings.
It’s possible that this may now shift to those who don’t. People are being asked to be on their own and having it suggested that they should wear masks. Normally, if you were walking on your own and saw someone in a mask, you might be concerned and avoid them. But now it’s less clear when and if you should be afraid.
In the US, Jorge Elorza, Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, went as far as saying citizens should “socially shame” the maskless “so they fall in line.” But the fact that mask-wearing can be exploited by violent criminals could put law-abiding citizens on edge. Whether someone wishes to cause harm or not, being unable to see someone’s face conceals crucial emotional cues that humans rely on for survival.
When you see a face you do two things at once. You try to work out the identity: Do I know them? How do I know them? And you try to read their emotions. “Emotion recognition is important from an evolutionary perspective as it helps us gauge threat and can also facilitate positive social interactions. That’s true of both people we know well and those we have never met.
If mask-wearing is taken up in a big way, this will inevitably affect how humans interact and could lead to greater tension between members of the public, with personal security implications. Clearly, any move towards a faceless society will be a huge deal for most countries.
However, he adds that all hope is not lost. Predatory crimes are increasingly uncommon and we may find other ways of reading one another. I think we’ll quite quickly get used to picking up social and emotional cues from voice cues or body language.
So while mask-wearing has been common for years in some Asian countries, mass uptake among countries will be a big shift for citizens who value personal freedoms and are unused to heavy-handed governance.
However, the readiness with which these populations took on lockdown measures suggests that if face-covering becomes commonplace, herd mentality could kick in. There will be a new great unknown: How will countries cope with populations that are more jittery in each other’s company and suspicious of their fellow citizens?
One Chinese firm has already claimed it has developed software that can accurately identify people, even if they are wearing masks. However, experts still think we are a way off, this becoming a norm that can be used in all circumstances.
I think it’s important that if we see claims around a specific algorithm, we don’t then apply it to all algorithms because each has its own strengths and weakness. We still need to do a lot more research.
Obscuring faces creates other problems for law enforcement, particularly when it comes to establishing what constitutes suspicious behavior. It was only last year that places like Hong Kong and France were passing laws making it illegal to obscure your face during a protest.