How Facial Recognition Is Being Used in the Ukraine War

In the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine and images of the devastation created there flooded the news, Hoan Ton-Thot, the chief executive of the face recognition company Clearview AI, began to think about how he could get involved.

He believed his company’s technology could clarify the complexities of war.

“I remember the captured Russian soldiers and the Russians watching the video claiming they were actors,” he said. Ton-he said. “I thought that if Ukrainians could use Clearview, they could get more information to verify their identities.”

In early March, he reached out to people who could help him contact the Ukrainian government. One of the members of Clearview’s advisory board, Lee Voloski, a lawyer who has worked for the Biden administration, was meeting with Ukrainian officials and offered to deliver the message.

Mr. Ton-Thatte wrote a letter explaining that his application “could immediately identify anyone from just the photo” and that it was used by police and federal agencies in the United States to solve crimes. That specialty has led to a clearer investigation into privacy concerns and questions about racism and other biases in artificial-intelligence systems.

The tool, which can identify the suspect caught on surveillance video, could be valuable to the country under attack, Mr. Ton-he wrote. He said the tool could identify people who may be spies, as well as the dead, and compare their faces with a database of 20 billion faces from Clearview’s public web, including “Russian social sites like WeContact”.

Mr. Ton-That decided to provide Clearview services to Ukraine for free, as previously reported by Reuters. Now, less than a month later, the New York-based Clearview has created more than 200 accounts for users of five government agencies in Ukraine, conducting more than 5,000 searches. Clearview has also translated its app into Ukrainian.

“It is an honor to help Ukraine,” he said. Ton-Thot, who provided emails to officials from three Ukrainian agencies, confirmed that they had used the tool. It has identified dead soldiers and prisoners of war as well as tourists from the country, confirming the names on their official IDs. Fear of spies and saboteurs has increased paranoia in the country.

According to an email, Ukraine’s national police obtained two photos of the dead Russian soldiers on March 21, which were viewed by The New York Times. One had patches on the deceased’s uniform, but the other did not, so the ministry rushed. His face through Clearview’s app.

The app came across photos of a similar-looking man, a 33-year-old Ulyanovsk, wearing a paratrooper uniform and holding a gun in his profile photo on the Russian social media site Odnoklassniki. An attempt was made to contact the man’s relatives in Russia to report his death, but no response was received, according to a national police official.

Identifying the dead soldiers and informing their families is part of the campaign, according to a telegram by Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mikhail Fedorov, urging the Russian people to break the deadlock and “dispel the myth of a special operation.” No one dies, “he wrote.

Images of conflict zones, civilians and soldiers left behind on city streets have turned into battlefields, becoming more widespread and immediately available in the age of social media. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has shown graphic images of attacks on his country to world leaders to make his case for more international aid. But in addition to expressing a visceral feeling of warfare, such images can now offer something else: an opportunity to play a significant role in facial recognition technology.

Critics warn that tech companies could take advantage of the crisis to expand with a little privacy oversight, and that any mistakes made by software or its users could have dire consequences in the realm of war.

Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, opposes any use of facial recognition technology, saying it believes it should be banned worldwide because governments use it to persecute minority groups and stifle dissent. Was. Russia and China, among others, have deployed state-of-the-art face recognition in cities.

“War zones are used not only for weapons but also as surveillance tools that are subsequently deployed to the civilian population or used for law enforcement or crowd control purposes,” Ms. Greer said. “Companies like Clearview are keen to use the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine to normalize the use of their harmful and aggressive software.”

Clearview is facing a number of lawsuits in the United States, and in Canada, Britain, France, Australia, and Italy, the use of her photo without her consent has been declared illegal. He faces fines in Britain and Italy.

Ms. Greer added: “We already know that dictatorial states like Russia use face recognition surveillance to break up opposition and dissent. Expanding the use of facial recognition does not hurt dictators like Putin – it helps them.

In recent years facial recognition has advanced in power and accuracy and is becoming more accessible to people.

While Clearview AI says it only makes its database available for law enforcement, other facial recognition services that search the web for matches, including PimEyes and FindClone, are available to anyone wishing to pay for them. PimEyes will release public photos on the Internet, while FindClone searches for scraped photos from the Russian social media site VKontakte.

Face recognition vendors are picking sides in the conflict. Georgie Gobronidz, a professor in Tbilisi, Georgia, who bought Pimiz in December, said he had banned Russia from using the site since the invasion began, citing concerns that it would be used to identify Ukrainians.

“No Russian customers are allowed to use the service anymore,” Mr. Gobronidz said. “We do not want our service to be used for war crimes.”

Groups such as Bellingcat have used facial recognition sites for reports on the Dutch investigation site, the conflict and Russia’s military operations.

Eric Toller, research director at Bellingcat, said his favorite face search engine was FindClone. He described a three-hour surveillance video this week, said to be from a Belarusian courier service, showing men in military uniforms packing supplies, including TVs, car batteries and electric scooters for shipping.

Mr. Toller said FindCloan allowed him to identify several men as Russian soldiers who send “loot” from Ukraine to their homes.

Ukraine and Russia are fighting an information war over what motivates the invasion and how it is going, Mr. Toler sometimes plays the role of arbitrator for his audience.

Mr. Fedorov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, tweeted a still from the same surveillance tape of a soldier at the courier service counter. Mr. Fedorov claimed that the man had been identified as a “Russian special forces officer” who had committed atrocities in Bucha and “sent all the stolen items to his family.”

Mr. “We will find every killer,” Fedorov added.

The technology has the ability to detect casualties or track certain units. Peter Singer, a security scholar at Washington-based think tank New America, said the growing availability of data on people and their movements would make it easier to find those responsible for war crimes. But it can also make it difficult for citizens to sleep low in a tense environment.

Mr. Said the singer. “It will be increasingly difficult for future warriors to keep their identities secret, as for regular civilians walking 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 connected,” he added.

That trial is not just online. Drone footage, satellite images and photos and videos captured by people in Ukraine are all playing a role in understanding what is happening there.

Mr. The technology is not perfect, said Toler of Bellingcat. “It’s easy to misfire – it goes without saying,” he said. “But people are more right than wrong in this. They’ve figured out how to support identity.”

Faces can look alike, so secondary information in the form of identification marks, tattoos or clothing is important to confirm a match. Whether that will happen in a tense, wartime situation is an open question.

Mr. Toller is not sure how long he will have access to the facial recognition tool of his choice. Because FindClone is located in Russia, it is subject to sanctions, he said.

Mr. Toller said. “I have a friend in Kyrgyzstan. I’m trying to use his bank card to get my account up and running again. “

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