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?
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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.
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.
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.