Hollywood’s silicone masks used to commit crimes, most people can’t distinguish from real faces
Researchers at the University of York have found that the most sophisticated masks used in Hollywood productions are capable of fooling people into thinking they’re real faces.
In a study, most people were very bad at spotting people wearing one of the “hyper-realistic” masks in photographs and in real life.
The masks, which were famously used to disguise Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible franchise, can now be bought online for as little as £500 and have started to appear as methods of disguise in criminal cases.
The silicone masks allow wearers to transform their appearance - including apparent age and gender - in seconds.
The silicone masks have been used in bank robberies and by people taking international flights in disguise, with suspects switching gender, ethnicity and looking decades younger or older within just a few seconds.
In 2010 a man wearing a hyper-realistic mask successfully boarded a flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver.
Since then, hyper-realistic masks have been used in several armed robberies in the US. One unsolved case concerns the so-called Geezer Bandit, who appears to be in his seventies, but may be a younger person wearing a hyper-realistic mask.
The technology was developed by the film industry so Hollywood stars did not have to sit for hours having make-up done, with the masks placed over their head in seconds.
“We wanted to see if people would distinguish these masks from real faces, so we asked people to describe the faces they saw in photographs or in live viewing,” said Dr Rob Jenkins from the department of psychology.
“Only one in 100 viewers mentioned a mask. When we asked if there was anything unusual about the faces, that number rose to one in 50. Even when we told them it could be a mask, most people still thought it was a real face.”
He said masks could trick law enforcement agencies into looking for entirely the wrong person, whereas if a robber in a balaclava would have a question mark next to their appearance.
Now masks are getting cheaper and better, he said, and are available online without need for a fitting.
They completely cover the head, neck and upper chest, so there is no visible join around the collar.
Dr Jenkins has worn masks at work to gauge people’s reactions, saying: “It gives you a strange feeling of anonymity. I went into the staff room and I was expecting people to say ‘Rob, what are you doing? Take the mask off’.
“But no-one had that reaction at all; people were a bit confused as to why this old man was in the staff room.”
But there are ways for humans, and possibly machines, to detect when someone is disguised.
Dr Jenkins said thermal detectors could be used to gauge the temperature of someone’s face, with flesh being different from silicone.
And suspicions could be raised by how someone speaks, as the masks can make it difficult to form certain words.
He said: “We are wondering if, strangely, it might be audio which allows us to solve this difficult visual test.”