In the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine and photos of the devastation that flooded the news flooded, Joan Ton-Tat, chief executive of face recognition company Clearview AI, began to think about how he could get involved.
He believed that his company’s technology could offer clarity in complex war situations.
“I remember seeing videos of captured Russian soldiers and Russia claiming to be actors,” Mr Ton-Tight said. “I thought that if Ukrainians could use Clearview, they could get more information to confirm their identity.
In early March, he turned to people who could help him contact the Ukrainian government. One of the members of the Clearview Advisory Board, Lee Voloski, a lawyer who worked for the Biden administration, met with Ukrainian officials and offered to deliver a statement.
Mr Ton-That wrote a letter explaining that his application “can instantly identify someone from a photo only” and that police and federal agencies in the United States are using it to solve crimes. This feature prompted Clearview to address concerns about privacy and issues of racism and other biases in artificial intelligence systems.
The tool that can identify a suspect caught by video surveillance can be valuable to an attacked country, writes Mr. Ton-That. He said the tool could identify people who may be spies as well as dead people by comparing their faces to Clearview’s database of 20 billion people on the public network, including Russian social sites such as VKontakte.
Mr Ton-That decided to offer Clearview services to Ukraine free of charge, as Reuters reported earlier. Now, less than a month later, New York-based Clearview has created more than 200 user accounts at five Ukrainian government agencies that have conducted more than 5,000 searches. Clearview also translated its application into Ukrainian.
“I was honored to help Ukraine,” said Mr Ton-That, who provided emails from officials from three agencies in Ukraine confirming that they had used the tool. He identified dead soldiers and prisoners of war, as well as travelers to the country, confirming the names of their official identity documents. Fear of spies and saboteurs in the country has led to increased paranoia.
According to an email, Ukraine’s national police received two photos of dead Russian soldiers, which were viewed by The New York Times on March 21. his face through the Clearview app.
The app released photos of a similar-looking man, 33, from Ulyanovsk, wearing a paratrooper’s uniform and holding a gun in his Odnoklassniki profile, a Russian social media site. According to a national police officer, attempts were made to contact the man’s relatives in Russia to inform them of his death, but there was no answer.
Identifying the dead soldiers and informing their families is part of a campaign, according to a telegram from Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Fedorov, to break into the Russian public at the cost of the conflict and dispel the myth of a “special operation”. “In which there are no recruits and no one dies,” he wrote.
Images of conflict zones, slaughtered civilians and soldiers left on city streets turned into battlefields became more widely and instantly available in the social media era. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky showed graphic images of attacks on his country to world leaders to highlight his arguments for more international aid. But in addition to conveying an inner sense of war, these types of images can now offer something else: a chance for face recognition technology to play an important role.
However, critics warn that technology companies could take advantage of the crisis to expand with little oversight of privacy, and that any mistakes made by software or those who use it could have dire consequences in a war zone.
Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, opposes any use of face recognition technology and said he believes it should be banned worldwide because governments have used it to persecute of minority groups and suppression of dissent. Russia and China, among others, have introduced advanced facial recognition in urban cameras.
“War zones are often used as training grounds not only for weapons, but also for surveillance tools, which are later deployed on the civilian population or used for law enforcement or crowd control purposes,” Ms. Greer said. “Companies like Clearview are eager to use the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine to normalize the use of their malicious and invasive software.
Clearview has faced several lawsuits in the United States, and the use of photos of people without their consent has been outlawed in Canada, Britain, France, Australia and Italy. He faces fines in Britain and Italy.
Ms Greer added: “We already know that authoritarian states like Russia use face-to-face surveillance to suppress protests and dissent. Expanding the use of facial recognition does not harm authoritarianists like Putin – it helps them. “
Face recognition has advanced in strength and accuracy in recent years and is becoming more accessible to the public.
While Clearview AI says it provides its database only to law enforcement, other face recognition services that search the matching network, including PimEyes and FindClone, are available to anyone who wants to pay for them. PimEyes will post public photos on the Internet, while FindClone is looking for photos taken from the Russian social media site VKontakte.
Facial recognition providers choose parties to the conflict. Georgi Gobronidze, a professor in Tbilisi, Georgia who bought PimEyes in December, said he had banned Russia from using the site since the invasion began, citing fears that it would be used to identify Ukrainians.
“No Russian customer is allowed to use the service now,” Mr Gobronidze said. “We do not want our service to be used for war crimes.
Groups such as Bellingcat, a Dutch investigative site, have used face recognition sites to report on Russia’s conflict and military operations.
The war between Russia and Ukraine: Key developments
Arik Toler, research director at Bellingcat, said he preferred FaceClone. He described a three-hour surveillance video released this week, allegedly from a courier service in Belarus, showing men in military uniforms packing materials, including TVs, car batteries and an electric scooter, to send.
Mr Toler said FindClone had allowed him to identify several of the men as Russian soldiers sending “loot” to their homes in Ukraine.
While Ukraine and Russia are waging an information war about what motivated the invasion and how it unfolded, journalists like Mr. Toler sometimes play the role of arbiter for their audiences.
Mr. Federov, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, tweeted a photo from the same surveillance tape of one of the soldiers at the courier service counter. Mr Federov said the man had been identified as a “Russian special forces officer” who committed atrocities in Bucha and “sent all stolen items to his family”.
Mr Federov added: “We will find every killer”.
Technology has potential beyond identifying victims or tracking specific units. Peter Singer, a security scientist at New America, a think tank in Washington, said the growing availability of data on people and their movements will make it easier to identify those responsible for war crimes. But it can also make it harder for civilians to lie low in a tense environment.
“Ukraine is the first major conflict in which we have seen the use of face recognition technology on such a scale, but it is far from the last,” Mr Singer said. “It will be increasingly difficult for future warriors to keep their identities secret, just as ordinary civilians walk the streets of your own city.
“In a world where more and more data is being collected, everyone is leaving a trail of points that can be linked,” he added.
This trail is not just online. Drone recordings, satellite images and photos and videos taken by people in Ukraine play a role in recognizing what is happening there.
Mr Toler of Bellingcat said the technology was not perfect. “It’s easy to make mistakes – that goes without saying,” he said. “But people are more right than wrong. They figured out how to verify their identities. “
Individuals may look similar, so secondary information, in the form of an identification mark, tattoo, or clothing, is important to confirm the match. Whether this will happen in a tense, wartime situation is an open question.
Mr Toler is not sure how much longer he will have access to his preferred facial recognition tool. Because FindClone is based in Russia, it has been subject to sanctions, he said.
“I still have about 30 days of my service left, so I’m desperately trying to add more juice to my account,” Mr Toler said. “I have a friend in Kyrgyzstan. I’m trying to use her bank card to reset my account. “