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    China Confronts an Insidious New Privacy Risk: Lifelike Silicone Masks

    In China, it is now possible to buy masks so lifelike that they can be used to fool facial recognition scanners. And criminals already appear to be using them.
    Jul 02, 2024#crime#e-commerce

    In China, concerns are rising about the risks posed by an unusual technology: hyper-realistic silicone masks that can be used to impersonate another person and even hack into facial recognition systems.

    The masks have been widely used in Hollywood bank heist movies for years, but they are becoming increasingly available to the general public via Chinese e-commerce platforms — a trend that experts worry could lead to a crime spree unless the trade is controlled.

    Despite Chinese authorities’ efforts to raise awareness of the risks posed by silicone masks, the products can still easily be purchased online, with vendors promising that they can fool facial recognition scanners.

    According to an investigation by domestic media outlet Legal Daily, the masks can cost anything from a few yuan to 25,000 yuan ($3,400). High-end masks require up to one month to produce.

    Some vendors offer lifelike replicas of celebrities’ faces and also claim to be able to produce realistic masks based on any individual as long as the client provides photos or scans of the target.

    Chinese authorities are growing increasingly worried about silicone masks being used by criminals, with one case in March attracting particular attention.

    A burglar entered a residential compound in Shanghai and broke into four first-floor apartments, making off with over 100,000 yuan in valuables. When police inspected the surveillance footage, they found that the burglar appeared to be an elderly man wearing a black coat and knitted hat.

    Officers were able to track down the suspect using clues left at one of the crime scenes, but when they detained the man, they were intrigued to find that he was in his 40s and looked nothing like the figure in the surveillance footage. The culprit, surnamed Tong, later confessed that he had worn a silicone mask as a disguise.

    In January, police in the eastern Zhejiang province reported a similar case, in which a man broke into several vehicles while wearing a silicone mask to disguise his identity.

    Sixth Tone found that a simple search using the phrase “silicone face mask” on the e-commerce platform Taobao yielded hundreds of results.

    When Sixth Tone contacted one mask vendor posing as a customer, the person confirmed that they could create a mask based on any person’s face. No further information regarding the customer’s identity or how they intended to use the mask was required.

    In the store’s comment section, several users had asked whether silicone masks can be used to deceive others and pass facial recognition live detection systems. Some buyers had responded that they had indeed used their masks to fool the facial recognition scanners at their offices.

    The vendor claimed that custom silicone masks have an over 90% resemblance to the real person, and confirmed that they can be used to impersonate another person while clocking in and out of work via a facial recognition system.

    Legal experts have warned that using masks in this way poses worrying implications for individual privacy, and that both users and vendors of such masks could be breaking the law.

    “Face masks are not just simple decorative accessories, they serve as tangible carriers of facial recognition information,” Zhongda Law Firm wrote in a commentary. “Individuals who use such face masks without permission may be held liable for infringing others’ right to privacy.”

    Face mask vendors could face prosecution if their customers use the products for illegal activities, the law firm noted.

    On Chinese social media, users called for stricter oversight of the face mask trade. “These stores should be required to obtain a license, and purchasers should be subject to real-name authentication,” read one highly upvoted comment.

    (Header image: Left: The lifelike silicone mask worn by a man who broke into four apartments in Shanghai in March; right: The burglar under arrest in Shanghai. From Weibo)