Does compulsory mask wearing make life easier for criminals in Germany?

German police say that compulsory mask wearing is a challenge. But sophisticated software means they can identify suspects, even if they are covering their faces.

Does compulsory mask wearing make life easier for criminals in Germany?
Software used by the police to identify suspects. Photo: DPA

Tights, clown masks, motorcycle helmets. We all know the playbook from films. Criminals don't like showing their faces when committing a robbery.

So, now that face covering is compulsory in shops and banks, will criminals have an advantage when committing a crime?

The question seems particularly pertinent to CCTV surveillance. If someone is caught on camera, they will often be covering half their face – just like the rest of us.

Corona face masks are making it harder to identify criminals, says Bernhard Egger, head of the Bavarian Agency of Investigation (LKA). But that does not mean that they automatically prevent identification, he adds.

Photo: DPA

For facial recognition, the overall quality of the available image material is always important, explains Egger. Key factors include the distance of the person from the camera and whether one can see their eyes.

“Of course, the better the image, the more likely someone is to be identified,” he says.

The Bavarian LKA is considered a trailblazer in Germany in the use of facial recognition programmes. The software they use is becoming increasingly sophisticated at matching images with photos the police already have of criminals and suspects.

Egger claims that hey have already identified perpetrators wearing masks by using their software.

Photos of 3.6 million people

Images are becoming increasingly important in the investigation of suspects. A Germany-wide police database is now filled with more than 5.8 million images of about 3.6 million registered criminals or suspects. 

According to the Federal Investigation Agency (BKA), tens of thousands of searches are conducted each year using a facial recognition system. Last year, more than 2,100 people were identified with the system.

If a picture of a suspected perpetrator is available, it is compared with the millions of stored images in the database. The work is carried out by an algorithm. 

“A pattern is calculated and the software provides suggestions,” explains Egger. Trained photo experts then check the suggestions to see if there is a real match.

Although wearing protective masks makes this work more difficult, “surveillance camera recordings generally allow other features for identification,” says the LKA in Hessen. 

For example, size, stature, clothing, shoes, the direction of escape and possible accomplices all offer clues.

“In principle, it can be said that video surveillance systems are effective at helping solve crimes – even during the corona pandemic,” the LKA in Hessen states.

Photo: DPA

More crime due to masks?

Another question is whether the omnipresence of masks encourages criminals to commit more crimes.

“Since the wearing of a mouth-and-nose covering is currently required by law, it is inevitable that this also plays a role when committing crimes – such as shoplifting or physical assault. It must therefore also be recorded as part of the description of the perpetrator,” the Hessian LKA said. 

Crimes with the reference “wearing a mouth-nose cover” or “masked perpetrator” have already been recorded. However, this doesn't mean that the perpetrator used the corona mask in a targeted manner.

Some video has emerged of shoplifters wearing masks, said Egger of the LKA in Munich.

“But we have no indication that the mask is consciously being worn in areas where they are not compulsory, in order to prevent or complicate criminal prosecution,” he added.

The police also have no evidence that the duty to wear a mask is being exploited to commit more crimes. In some areas, they are currently registering falling crime numbers.

SEE ALSO: Who is (and isn't) wearing a mask in Germany 

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.