A hot potato: Where you stand on matters like these is likely heavily influenced by your stance on privacy and your views of social media in general. When you willingly publish something on a public account, should it then be available for anyone to access and use?

Millions of people started wearing face masks in public settings after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended doing so last month to help slow the spread of Covid-19 when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.

In our social media-driven world, it was inevitable that selfies and photos of people donning masks would soon flood popular platforms like Instagram and Facebook. That’s exactly what has happened and it’s apparently become quite the issue for facial recognition platforms.

As CNET correctly highlights, masks cover a significant portion of your face when worn correctly including the nose, mouth and chin. With these valuable identifiers suddenly out of the equation, facial recognition companies are scrambling to retrain their algorithms to lean more heavily on other attributes and they’re reportedly using photos sourced from public social media accounts to do so.

CNET said it found thousands of “face-masked selfies” available in public data sets. This batch on GitHub, for example, contains more than 1,200 samples sorted by people wearing medical masks, no masks, or non-medical (DIY) masks. The publication also cited a collection of more than 5,000 photos of masked individuals sourced from China a month earlier.

The group behind the 1,200 sample set, AI startup Workaround, said they collected the data from public Instagram accounts. CEO Wafaa Arbash told CNET they found the images by searching hashtags related to masks. The users weren’t asked for permission to be included in the database.

A spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, told the publication they do not allow third parties to collect or use photos posted by their users in this way without their consent. “We are continuing to investigate this,” the spokesperson added.

Masthead credit: wanderingstock, Vitaly Art