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A software engineer works on a facial recognition program

Facial-recognition software peers behind the mask

Image credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

A Chinese company says they have developed the country’s first facial-recognition system that can identify people even if they are wearing a mask, coinciding with the growing use of surgical masks in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

China employs some of the world’s most sophisticated systems of electronic surveillance, including facial recognition. Yet the coronavirus, which emerged in Hubei province late last year, has resulted in almost everyone wearing a surgical mask outdoors in the hope of warding off the virus, posing a particular problem for surveillance.

To challenge this issue, Hanwang Technology Ltd – which also goes by the English name Hanvon – said it has come up technology that can successfully recognise people even when they are wearing masks.

A software engineer works on a facial recognition program that identifies people when they wear a face mask at the development lab of Hanwang

A software engineer works on a facial recognition program that identifies people when they wear a face mask at the development lab of Hanwang (Hanvon) Technology in Beijing

Image credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Huang Lei, Hanwang’s vice president, said: “If connected to a temperature sensor, it can measure body temperature while identifying the person’s name and then the system would process the result, say, if it detects a temperature over 38°C”.

According to the Beijing-based firm, a team of 20 staff used core technology developed over the past 10 years, a sample database of about six million unmasked faces and a much smaller database of masked faces to develop the technology.

The team began work on the system in January this year, as the coronavirus outbreak gathered pace, and began rolling it out to the market after a month, the firm said.

A woman has her face scanned by a facial recognition device that identifies people when they wear masks to gain access to the Hanwang Technology office

A woman has her face scanned by a facial recognition device that identifies people when they wear masks to gain access to the Hanwang Technology office

Image credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The manufacturer sells two main types of products that use the technology. One performs 'single-channel' recognition that is best used, for example, at entrances to office buildings. The other product is a 'multi-channel' recognition system that uses "multiple surveillance cameras".

According to Lei, the latter can identify everyone in a crowd of up to 30 people within a second. “When wearing a mask, the recognition rate can reach about 95 per cent, which can ensure that most people can be identified,” he said, adding that the success rate for people without masks is about 99.5 per cent.

REUTERS/Thomas Peter

A man has his face scanned by a facial recognition device that identifies people when they wear masks to gain access to the office of Hanwang (Hanvon) Technology

Image credit: A man has his face scanned by a facial recognition device that identifies people when they wear masks to gain access to the office of the Chinese electronics manufacturer Hanwang (Hanvon) Technology in Beijing

One of the organisations that use Hanwang’s technology is the Ministry of Public Security, which runs the police in China. The Ministry can cross-reference images with its own database of names and other information and then identify and track people as they move around.

“It can detect crime suspects, terrorists or make reports or warnings,” Lei said, but disclosed that the system struggles to identify people with both a mask and sunglasses. “In this situation, all of the key facial information is lost. In such cases, recognition is tough”.

Regarding other surveillance tools being used in the fight against the coronavirus, there has been criticism on social media about its use, although most people seem to be accepting the extra intrusion - even embracing it - as a means to deal with the health emergency, Lei explained.

Although domestic customers drive Hanwang’s business, Lei also said he expects more foreign interest, as the virus spreads around the world and more people wear face masks. “It not only benefits Chinese people but also when the technology is applied globally, it can benefit the world,” he said.

In news related to the coronavirus outbreak, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained how the company will handle posts about the novel coronavirus as the disease continues to spread.

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