Cameras that detect face masks are helping French authorities to evaluate citizens’ adherence to government mandates intended to fight Covid-19.

What’s new: Starting this week, everyone riding public transportation in France is required to wear a face mask. Paris and Cannes are using computer vision to count people who comply.

How it works: Datakalab, a French AI startup, is installing chips in existing CCTV cameras that run an object recognition model. The model is trained to distinguish masked faces from unmasked ones.

  • Paris is testing the cameras at the busy Chatelet-Les Halles metro station. Cannes has installed them on buses and in public markets.
  • The software counts mask wearers every 15 minutes and transmits aggregate statistics to the authorities. The company says the system is meant to help authorities determine where to step up efforts to promote mask-wearing
  • Datakalab provides similar technology for use in retailing. Those systems note customers’ age, gender, how long they stay in certain areas, and whether they’re smiling.

Behind the news: AI is being used widely to monitor compliance with rules designed to combat the spread of Covid-19.

  • The Indian state of Punjab is using drones from Skylark Laboratories to enforce social distancing and curfew regulations.
  • Hospitality companies have deployed cameras from Wobot Intelligence to ensure that employees are washing their hands for at least 20 seconds.

Yes, but: France’s privacy commission warns that mask detection technology may violate European rules that limit personal data collection. Datakalab counters that its systems neither identify individuals nor store data. In any case, 94 percent of French citizens support wearing masks in public according to a recent poll. (France continues to outlaw burqas and other religious face coverings under a 2011 law.)

Why it matters: As France and other countries begin to lift rules that keep people physically apart, wearing masks is critical to limiting coronavirus transmission.

We’re thinking: Covid-19 surveillance is a double-edged sword: helpful in containing the pandemic but worrisome in other contexts. Governments and businesses must use it appropriately and only while the need persists.


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