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Could Hollywood special effects masks be the next tool in identity deception?

Posted on 15 November 2017

Researchers at the University of York have shown that hyper-realistic face masks, first created by Hollywood special effects teams, are convincing enough to pass as ‘real’ faces.


An example of a hyper-realistic face mask and three different masks worn by the same person. (Credit: Rob Jenkins and Jet Sanders)

The masks, which were famously used to disguise Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible II movie, can now be bought online for as little as £500 and have started to appear as methods of disguise in criminal cases.

The silicone masks allow wearers to transform their appearance - including apparent age and gender - in seconds.

Psychologists at the University of York put the masks to the test to see how easy it would be to spot them in ‘real life’ viewing situations.

Security challenge

Dr Rob Jenkins, from the University’s Department of Psychology, said: "We wanted to see if people would distinguish these masks from real faces, so we asked people to describe the faces they saw in photographs or in live viewing. Only one in a hundred viewers mentioned a mask.

“When we asked if there was anything unusual about the faces, that number rose to one in fifty. Even when we told them it could be a mask, most people still thought it was a real face.”

Jet Sanders, PhD student from the University’s Department of Psychology, added: “The human brain is highly attuned to facial appearance. It’s a tribute to the skill of the mask makers that they can fool most of the people most of the time.

“The availability of these masks online poses a new challenge for security and crime prevention. The more we know about how to spot them, the more we can work to improve security protocols.”

Armed robberies

In 2010 a man wearing a hyper-realistic mask successfully boarded a flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver.

Since then, hyper-realistic masks have been used in several armed robberies in the US. One unsolved case concerns the so-called Geezer Bandit, who appears to be in his seventies, but may be a younger person wearing a hyper-realistic mask.

The research is published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.

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