In the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine and images of the devastation there flooded the news, Hoan Ton-That, chief executive officer of facial recognition company Clearview AI, began thinking about how he can participate.
He believes his company’s technology can bring clarity in complex war situations.
“I remember watching videos of captured Russian soldiers and Russia claiming they were actors,” Mr. Ton-That said. “I think if Ukrainians can use Clearview, they can get more information to verify their identity.”
In early March, he reached out to people who could help him contact the Ukrainian government. One of Clearview’s advisory board members, Lee Wolosky, a lawyer who had worked for the Biden administration, met with Ukrainian officials and offered to deliver a message.
Mr Ton-That drafted a letter explaining that his app “can instantly identify someone from just a photo” and that police and federal agencies in the US are already using it. to solve crime. That feature has led Clearview to scrutinize privacy concerns and questions about racism and other biases in artificial intelligence systems.
This tool, which can identify a suspect caught by surveillance video, could be of value to a country under attack, Ton-That writes. He says the tool can identify potential spies, as well as deceased people, by comparing their faces with Clearview’s database of 20 billion faces from the public web. , including the word “Russian social sites like VKontakte.”
Mr. Ton-That has decided to offer Clearview’s services to Ukraine free of charge, as Reuters previously reported. Now, less than a month later, New York-based Clearview has created more than 200 accounts for users at five Ukrainian government agencies, having performed more than 5,000 searches. Clearview has also translated its app into Ukrainian.
“It was an honor to help Ukraine, confirming that they used the tool,” said Mr. Ton-That, who provided emails from officials from three agencies in Ukraine. It has identified dead soldiers and prisoners of war, as well as those traveling within the country, confirming names on their official identification. Fears of domestic spies and saboteurs have led to high levels of paranoia.
According to an email, Ukraine’s national police obtained two photos of dead Russian soldiers, seen by The New York Times, on March 21. One dead man had identification stickers on his military uniform. him, but not the other, so the ministry took over. your face through the Clearview app.
The app featured photos of a similar-looking, 33-year-old man from Ulyanovsk, wearing a paratrooper uniform and holding a gun in his profile picture on Odnoklassniki, a Russian social networking site. According to an official with the national police, attempts have been made to contact the man’s relatives in Russia to inform him of his death, but there has been no response.
According to a Telegram post by Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, identifying the dead soldiers and notifying their families is part of an operation to share with the Russian public the costs of the conflict. conflict and to “dispel the myth of a ‘special operation’ in which there were ‘no conscripts’ and ‘no deaths,'” he wrote.
Images from conflict zones, of civilians being slaughtered and soldiers left on the streets turned into battlefields, have become more widespread and instantaneous in the age of social media. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine showed graphic images of attacks on his country to world leaders to make his request for international aid. But beyond conveying a sense of visceral war, those kinds of images can now offer something else: an opportunity for facial recognition technology to play an important role.
However, critics warn that tech companies can exploit the crisis to expand with little scrutiny of privacy and that any mistakes made by the software or those who use it are at risk. can cause serious consequences in a war zone.
Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, opposes any use of facial recognition technology and says she believes it should be banned worldwide because of governments. used it to suppress minorities and suppress dissent. Russia and China, among others, have implemented advanced facial recognition in cameras in cities.
“War zones are often used as testing grounds not only for weapons but also as surveillance tools that are later deployed on residential areas or used for law enforcement purposes or crowd control,” said Ms. Greer. “Companies like Clearview are eager to exploit the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine to normalize their use of harmful and invasive software.”
Clearview is facing several lawsuits in the US, and using people’s photos without their consent has been declared illegal in Canada, UK, France, Australia and Italy. It faces fines in the UK and Italy.
Ms. Greer added: “We already know that authoritarian countries like Russia use facial recognition surveillance to suppress protests and dissent. Expanding the use of facial recognition doesn’t hurt autocrats like Putin – it helps them.”
Facial recognition has increased in power and accuracy in recent years and is becoming more and more accessible to the masses.
While Clearview AI says it only provides its database to law enforcement, other facial recognition services that look for matches on the web, including PimEyes and FindClone, are available. to anyone willing to pay for them. PimEyes will display public photos on the internet, while FindClone searches for photos scraped from the Russian social media site VKontakte.
Facial recognition providers are choosing inside the conflict. Giorgi Gobronidze, a professor in Tbilisi, Georgia, who purchased PimEyes in December, said he banned Russia’s use of the site after the invasion began, citing concerns it would be used for receiving Ukrainian type.
Mr. Gobronidze said: “Currently no Russian customers are allowed to use this service. “We don’t want our services used for war crimes.”
Groups like Bellingcat, the Dutch investigative website, have used facial recognition websites to cover the conflict and Russian military activities.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main developments
Aric Toler, director of research at Bellingcat, says his favorite face search engine is FindClone. He described a three-hour surveillance video that emerged this week, purportedly by a courier service in Belarus, showing men in military uniforms packing materials, including TVs, batteries. cars and an electric motorcycle, for transportation.
Mr Toler said FindClone allowed him to identify some of the men as Russian soldiers who sent “booty” to their homes from Ukraine.
As Ukraine and Russia grapple with information about the motives of the invasion and how it unfolded, journalists like Mr. Toler sometimes act as arbiter for their audiences.
Mr. Federov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, tweeted a still photo from the same surveillance video, of one of the soldiers at the courier service counter. Mr Federov claimed the man has been identified as a “Russian special forces officer” who committed the atrocities in Bucha and is “sending all the stolen items to his family”. “
Mr. Federov added, “We will find every killer.”
This technology has potential beyond identifying casualties or tracking certain units. Peter Singer, a security scholar at New America, a Washington-based think tank, says the increasing availability of data about people and their movements will help in tracing individuals responsible for the breach. War crimes just got easier. But it can also make it difficult for civilians to lie still in stressful environments.
“Ukraine is the first major conflict that we have seen the use of facial recognition technology on such a scale, but it is far from the last,” Mr. “It will be increasingly difficult for future warriors to keep their identities a secret, just as it is for civilians who regularly walk your own streets.”
“In a world where more and more data is being collected, everyone leaves a trail of dots that can be connected,” he added.
That trail isn’t just online. Drone footage, satellite imagery, and photos and videos taken by Ukrainians all play a role in helping to discern what’s happening there.
Toler of Bellingcat says the technology is far from perfect. “It’s very easy to shoot by mistake – that goes without saying,” he said. “But people are more right than wrong with this. They have found a way to authenticate the identity.”
Faces can look similar, so secondary information, in the form of markers, tattoos or clothing, is important to confirm a match. Whether that would have happened under tense wartime conditions is an open question.
Toler isn’t sure how long he’ll have access to his favorite facial recognition tool. Because FindClone is based in Russia, it has been subject to sanctions, he said.
“I still have about 30 business days left, so I am desperately trying to add more juice to my account,” Mr. Toler said. “I have a friend in Kyrgyzstan. I am trying to use her bank card to reinstate my account.”