A new generation of creepy “Mission Impossible” masks are so convincing people can’t tell them from human faces.
Researchers from the Universities of York and Kyoto teamed up to test reactions to the convincing silicone disguises.
They asked 240 participants in the UK and Japan to look at pairs of photographs and decide which showed a face and which showed a person wearing a mask.
Even though the test subjects knew they were looking for masks, they were fooled a fifth of the time.
The researchers say in real-world conditions that figure would go up because people wouldn’t expect masks.
Dr Rob Jenkins, from the Department of Psychology at the University of York, said: “The real-world error rate is likely to be much higher because many people may not even be aware hyper-realistic masks exist and are unlikely to be looking out for them.
“The current generation of masks is very realistic indeed with most people struggling to tell an artificial face from the real thing.”
The researchers say facial disguise is not a new problem, but “the level of realism that is achievable with these masks does raise new questions”.
The researchers believe the hyper-realistic masks, which can cost up to £1,000, will only become more convincing and could be exploited by criminals as a disguise.
In fact, it has already happened.
Someone wearing a mask that looked uncannily like France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, used it to con a number of wealthy victims into paying fake ‘ransoms’ for French hostages held captive by ISIS.
The conman – or conmen – managed to extract an estimated €80m (£70m) out of a number of notable individuals including including the Aga Khan and the owner of the Château Margaux vineyard in the years between 2015 and 2017.
The villain was never brought to justice, although suspicions have fallen on notorious French-Israeli chutzpah artist Gilbert Chikli.
Dr Jet Sanders, who worked on the study while a PhD student at the University of York, said: “Failure to detect synthetic faces may have important implications for security and crime prevention as hyper-realistic masks may allow the key characteristics of a person’s appearance to be incorrectly identified.
“These masks currently cost around £1,000 each and we expect them to become more widely used as advances in manufacturing make them more affordable.”
The research paper concludes: “People are rightly wary of photorealistic images because they know that images can be manipulated.
“We may be entering a time where the same concerns apply to facial appearance in the real world.”
The study is published in Cognitive Research: Principles And Implications .