Unmasking the Mask: 21st Century Criminal Disguises

Today's tech brings disguising to a new level, evading facial recognition

By Mark Tallman  |   Apr 24, 2017
Masks have always been fun. Now they've gone high-tech.

What’s in a face? These days, a lot.

Between public CCTV, private surveillance, and an internet-connected camera in everybody’s pocket, most people are now captured on camera many times throughout their day. Civil libertarians and privacy advocates are within their rights to encourage discussions on privacy. Yet, if we take a hint from other technologic trends, we can bet that CCTV, facial recognition systems, and video biometrics will only become more advanced, more widespread, and more networked in the future.

So far, much of this has been beneficial. Investigators have leveraged access to private CCTV for decades. Police agencies, border services, school districts, driver’s licensing offices, and private security staff now make regular use of CCTV and facial recognition systems. The FBI’s “Interstate Photo System” consolidates millions of mugshots and other images into a searchable facial recognition database.

In the meantime, social media companies gladly collect our facial biometrics every time we post a photo or get “tagged.” The folks at Facebook weren’t kidding when they chose their company name: Facebook now has the world’s largest book of faces, and we all happily wrote it for them.

Every technology entails pros and cons, and criminals often adapt their behavior around new technology. What will it look like when offenders start trying to defeat all this CCTV and facial recognition?

21st Century Disguises

Disguises were easier in the old days. While minor changes to superficial traits can still fool casual viewers, superficial alterations aren’t fooling modern facial recognition software or vigilant investigators with high-res video. Enter the 21st century disguise: high-quality theatric masks.

Today’s theatric masks can fool facial recognition software and alert human witnesses. High-tech methods are making these masks more accessible, but realistic prosthetics have been around for decades. Special effects artists, theater companies, and intelligence services painstakingly craft realistic masks using simple tools and skilled artisanal labor. Some disguises can be donned in seconds, will prevent facial recognition by software or eyewitnesses, and can even produce “false hits” making the wearer appear to be someone else. Many designs allow a user to convincingly switch their (apparent) gender, race, or age.

Commercial mask making has expanded since the early 2000s. Most companies ship to clients in film, theater, costume, art, and probably a fair number of pranksters. With advances to 3D printing, customers can now send a couple photographs (and some bitcoin) to a digital fabrication service, and receive a realistic 3D printed mask of someone else’s face. Home DIYers may soon print (and endlessly customize) realistic masks using digital fabrication and traditional crafting tools.

Are Offenders Using These?

It’s far from an epidemic, but we’ve seen a few interesting cases. Google will show you a couple dozen incidents that got media attention–almost all from the last decade. As you might guess, most involve a high risk of CCTV or eyewitness identification. A handful of ambitious offenders have used high-resolution disguises for jewelry, bank, and cash depot heists. Witnesses had no idea the offenders were in disguise.

On at least one occasion, an asylum-seeker in full disguise passed through airport security and boarded an international flight. He was detected when passengers noticed an elderly Caucasian man enter the lavatory to emerge later as a sharply-dressed Asian millennial. One young American fugitive tried to trick police with a realistic costume of an elderly man. The costume was decent but his acting wasn’t. Officers verbally engaged him long enough to detect the ruse.

Criminal uses appear to remain rare, but cases continue to trickle in. Researchers will eventually start tracking the cases to identify trends.

Combating Criminal Use

We can expect some increase in criminal use. If popularized, high-resolution disguises could pose challenges for border, transit, and facility security, and may complicate robbery, homicide, fraud, fugitive recovery, and other investigations. There are probably scenarios where realistic disguises go undetected, but we can take some lessons from the cases we know about.

Details matter: Some offenders are detected because voice, mannerisms, or extremities do not match with facial appearance, or behavioral indicators trip somebody’s spidey-sense. Thoughtful offenders can alter the appearance of extremities, or will wear gloves and long sleeves. Note: Gloves worn out of context might indicate facial disguise.

Sweat check: Realistic masks are usually made from silicone or latex. These non-breathable materials are uncomfortable for long periods (and their wearers likely to perspire).

Trace it: Some offenders have been caught through tracing of purchases. It’s increasingly possible to make your own realistic mask, but it is skilled work. Many criminals lack the incentive, patience, or expertise to make their own. Professional manufacturers have already assisted police by providing tips and transaction records. With enough illegal demand, “straw purchasers” may start reselling professional disguises to offenders. Skilled artists might be tempted to manufacture custom masks for offenders if the price is right.

What Can Be Done

It’s impossible to stop the supply of realistic masks. Some jurisdictions prohibit masks in public, but this takes on a different meaning when you don’t know they’re masks anymore. Millimeter-wave scanners might be calibrated to increase detectability at checkpoints.

We can also monitor the supply chain for popular professional designs. There are a limited number of designs available from legitimate suppliers at any given time, and you can bet FBI and Interpol have some of these producers in the Rolodex. Enrolling the most popular masks in facial recognition databases (and circulating their “mug shots”) might help, and wouldn’t pose any privacy concerns since the masks aren’t real people.


Realistic disguises are still rarely encountered, but technology will make them more accessible. At this early stage it should suffice to gain background knowledge about this emerging criminal behavior, identify any trends, and build basic awareness among the LEOs and private security staff most likely to encounter them.

In a world where the camera has become omnipresent, we shouldn’t be surprised when criminals realize there are benefits to becoming someone else. It’s up to researchers and LEOs to reveal what lies behind the 21st century mask.

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Mark Tallman

Mark Tallman

Dr. Mark A. Tallman is a security consultant and researcher specializing in technology, security, and post-industrial crime. Mark is an Adjunct Professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo’s Center for the Study of Homeland Security (CSHS), and Center for Cyber Security Education and Research (CCSER). Mark was a project manager for the Sie Center for International Security and Diplomacy’s Program on Terrorism and Insurgency Research. As a private security and emergency planning consultant, Mark has provided risk assessment, emergency planning, evaluation, and exercising services for public, private, and non-profit clients. Mark has a Ph.D. with International Security concentration from the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, an M.A. in Global Politics from Illinois State University, and a B.A. in Political Science from Northern Illinois University. He is certified by the Disaster Recovery Institute (DRII) as an Associate Business Continuity Planner.
Mark Tallman

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