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It’s a tale as old as internet time. A joke goes viral, and ends up becoming real. This time around, San Francisco-based artist Danielle Baskin told the internet she was going to start printing medical masks with the lower half of people’s faces printed on them in order to “protect from viral epidemics and still unlock your phone.” The Internet, fearful of coronavirus, wanted them.
The joke went viral, helped along by some commentary by New Yorker writer Helen Rosner, who called it “gloriously layered levels of dystopia,” and Baskin was off to the races. She told Digital Trends that the website she set up, FaceID Masks, had garnered 30,000 visits over the weekend, and she had a waiting list of 1,200 people who actually wanted to order their face on an N95 mask as of Tuesday.
“The question ‘is it a joke?’ is the insanity of our times,” Baskin wrote in an email to Digital Trends. She describes herself as “just an artist in a garage,” and said her background is more in unique printing methods than in facial recognition, but that she had been “thinking about antisurveillance, viral epidemics, and late-stage capitalism — and this is a cocktail of these ideas.”
She ended up developing the concept in one night. “I never know whether or not I’ll make my jokes real … I like to test ideas as jokes first to see how the Internet responds. But if I actually sell these, is that not still a joke?”
Spoiler alert for anyone hoping these things will unlock your phone: They won’t. Baskin said she is aware of this, but is testing the possibilities. “There’s also interest from people living in China, close to the coronavirus epidemic,” she wrote. “Everyone is wearing a plain mask in major Chinese cities right now, and this would be so helpful to see your friends.”
“The mask obviously couldn’t pass as you because facial-recognition software maps depth,” she said. “I think it’s possible that a unique face could be registered with the mask on. Some software uses imagery instead of depth. I’ll test across many devices.”
“There’s a natural market demand for something like this,” said Chris Kennedy, chief information and security officer at AttackIQ, a cybersecurity firm. “We live in an age where there’s a lot of public traffic and a high chance of getting sick, and these days a lot of tech requires your face.”
“I can see the humor in it,” Kennedy continued, “I don’t think of it as a privacy thing.” Eventually, he surmised, Apple and other providers might actually have to retool their tech to accommodate people who want to wear masks on the regular (Apple’s FaceID is known to be particularly strong, according to a study by Wired).
Passengers wear face masks on a Beijing Subway train during the outbreak of the coronavirus. Artyom Ivanov / Getty Images
Both Kennedy and Labhesh Patel, chief technology officer and chief scientist at the online identify verification company Jumio, emphasized to Digital Trends that right now, the only way this would actually work to unlock your phone while wearing a mask was if your Face ID software was really bad (which is the case with some phones). Most good systems are designed to recognize spoof attempts like wearing a mask, Patel added.
“Any realistic vendor would have gotten to the point where actively testing for this,” Patel said. “It’s hard for me to believe a vendor would put out a system that could be fooled by a 2D projection of a 3D face.”
But there’s no denying that there is interest in the product, which sparks a larger conversation about the wise use of facial recognition, said Damien Mason, technology expert at the U.K.-based ProPrivacy.
“The sheer amount of visitors the website has attracted shows that people are finally ready to have the much-needed conversation about the spread of facial recognition not just in our phones, but on surveillance cameras in the street,” Mason told Digital Trends. “The rapid rise of this technology outpaces the necessary regulation required to mitigate abuse by companies and governments. Instead of relying on laws to catch up, people are beginning to take matters into their own hands by obscuring their identities, whether effectively or not.”
So when will the masks actually exist? For now, Baskin said, she’s waiting. “I’m not sure when I’ll make these, as these are not particularly urgent to fabricate during a global mask shortage. I’ll email the waitlist when I’m ready,” she wrote.