They say that we all wear, in some way, a mask that is not visible to the naked eye. It is a metaphorical matter, of course. Or rather, it was. Because there are already masks that, in effect, cannot be detected, and which are not fictitious. They are hyperrealistic silicone masks, which can confuse anyone. Even (and it's worrisome) to the police.
Real impersonation cases
These masks have incredible details, with hair, freckles and wrinkles. They cover the user's head and chest. They include holes for the eyes and mouth that blend perfectly with the skin to create a realistic appearance. There are important cases of people who successfully use these masks to deceive others.
In 2010, an Asian man in his 20s went through passport control in Hong Kong undetected. He wore a mask that disguised him as an older white man who looked like the individual in his stolen passport. It was detected when they saw him take off his mask during his flight to Canada. The wearer of the mask was stopped by the police upon landing.
In 2016, in a widely reported story, an African-American man was arrested for bank robbery. CCTV security cameras identified him. However, it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. It was later learned that the bank robber was actually a white man … with a mask. The real perpetrator was only caught when his girlfriend called the police. He had found a hyperrealistic mask and a bag of money in his closet.
More recently, in 2019, something more daring happened. Identity scammers used a hyperrealistic mask to imitate France's defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian. They were looking for money from people in a hostage scam. It was estimated that the scheme defrauded people with around US $ 77 million. The suspect was only discovered after a linguistic slip. He used the word "vous" instead of "you" during a conversation.
More credible than ever
These real-world cases prove something. Hyperrealistic silicone masks are credible enough to provide a viable route to identity fraud. The Rob Jenkins research group and Mike Burton's FaceVar lab at the University of York set out to address this question. In several studies, they showed that detecting people with hyperrealistic masks in photographs and memory was very difficult.
But what happens closely in a context of real-world border control? An investigation was published in the academic journal Perception. Jenkins and his team created a simulated airport border control scenario during an event at the London Science Museum. It included a "traveler" with a hyperrealistic mask. Members of the public were asked a series of questions. They should assess whether they detected that the person sitting nearby was wearing a mask.
Only 13% of the participants detected the mask immediately. Of the rest of the participants, only 11% reported that they had detected the mask when they were presented with a series of questions. One of them was if they believed the traveler was wearing a costume.
At the end of the test, participants were informed about hyper-realistic mask fraud. They were explicitly asked if the traveler was wearing that mask or not. Surprisingly, 10% of the participants still could not detect that the individual was wearing a mask.
Look well: hyperrealistic masks are here
It was notable that the mask detection rates were so low. The task now is to find ways to improve detection rates. Some people are much better than others to distinguish masks from real faces. That opens the door to the selection and training of staff. And it is a reality: hyperrealistic masks are among us.
And you, have you looked well at the person who is going by your side?