A few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine and images of the devastation flooded the news, Juan Ton-That, chief executive of the face recognition agency Clearview AI, began to think about how he could be involved.
He believed that his company’s technology could clarify the complexities of war.
“I remember watching videos of captured Russian soldiers and Russia claiming they were actors,” Mr Ton-Thatt said. “I thought 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 communicate with the Ukrainian government. One of the members of Clearview’s advisory board, Lee Oloski, a lawyer who has worked for the Biden administration, was meeting with Ukrainian officials and offered a message.
Mr. Ton-Dat has drafted a letter explaining that his app can “instantly identify someone from just one photo” and is being used by U.S. police and federal agencies to solve crimes. This feature brings out the clearer view on privacy concerns and questions about racism and other biases within the artificial intelligence system.
The tool, which could identify the suspect caught in the surveillance video, could be valuable to the country under attack, Mr Ton-That wrote. He said the tool could identify people who may be spies, as well as compare the dead, with their faces from the public web to the 20 billion face-to-face Clearview database, which includes “Russian social sites like Vikontakt”.
Mr Ton-That has decided to offer a free Clearview service in Ukraine, as Reuters previously reported. Now, less than a month later, 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’s app has been translated into Ukrainian.
“It is an honor to help Ukraine,” said Mr Ton-Thatt, who provided emails from officials from three Ukrainian agencies confirming that they had used the tool. It has identified dead soldiers and prisoners of war, as well as travelers across the country, confirming their names on official IDs. Extreme insanity has increased in the country for fear of spying and sabotage.
According to an email, Ukraine’s national police found two pictures of dead Russian soldiers, seen in The New York Times on March 21. One dead person had an identification patch on his uniform, but the other did not, so the ministry ran. His face through Clearview’s app.
The app released a photo of a 33-year-old Ulyanovsk man with a similar appearance, wearing a paratrooper’s uniform and holding a gun in his profile photo on the Russian social media site Odnoklasnik. According to a national police official, attempts were made to contact the man’s relatives in Russia to report their deaths, but no response was received.
According to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mikhailov Fedorov’s Telegram Post, identifying the dead soldiers and informing their families is part of a campaign to break the value of the conflict to the Russian public and dispel “the myth of a ‘special operation’ that has no concept.” And ‘no one dies,’ “he wrote.
Images of conflict zones, abandoned civilians on the streets of the city and the battlefields left behind by soldiers, have become more widespread and instantaneous in the age of social media. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has shown a graphic image of the attack on his country to world leaders in a bid to further his case for international aid. But other than conveying a visceral feeling of war, these kinds of images can now offer something else: the opportunity to play an important role in facial recognition technology.
However, critics have warned that technology companies could take advantage of a crisis to expand their privacy oversight, and that any wrongdoing by software or those who use it could have serious consequences in war zones.
Evan Greer, a deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, opposes any use of facial recognition technology, and says he believes it should be banned worldwide because the government has used it to oppress and suppress dissent. Russia and China, among others, have established advanced face recognition in cameras in cities.
“War zones are often used as testing grounds not only for weapons but also for surveillance equipment that is then deployed to civilians or used for law enforcement or crowd control purposes,” Ms. Greer said. “Companies like Clearview are keen to exploit the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine to normalize their use of malicious and aggressive software.”
Clearview is facing a number of lawsuits in the United States, and the use of human images without their consent has been declared illegal in Canada, Britain, France, Australia and Italy. It faces fines in Britain and Italy.
Ms Greer added: “We already know that authoritarian states like Russia use face-to-face surveillance to protest and suppress dissent. Extending the use of facial recognition doesn’t hurt authoritarians like Putin – it helps them. “
In recent years facial recognition has improved in strength and accuracy and is becoming more accessible to the public.
Although Clearview AI says it only makes its database available to law enforcement agencies, other facial recognition services that search the web for matches, 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 scraped photos from the Russian social media site VKontakte.
Facial recognition vendors are choosing sides in the conflict. Giorgio Gobronidze, a professor in Tbilisi, Georgia, who bought PimIz in December, said he had banned Russia from using the site since the attack began, citing concerns that it could be used to identify Ukrainians.
“No Russian customers are allowed to use the service now,” said Mr Gobroniz. “We do not want our services to be used for war crimes.”
Groups such as the Dutch investigative site Bellingcat have used face recognition sites to report on conflicts and Russia’s military operations.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Eric Toler, director of research at Bellingcat, says his favorite face search engine is FindClone. He described a three-hour surveillance video released this week from a Belarusian courier service showing men in military uniforms packing up for shipping, including a TV, car batteries and an electric scooter.
Mr Toller said the FindClone had allowed him to identify several men who had sent Russian troops “looting” their homes from Ukraine.
When Ukraine and Russia instigated the attack and fought an information war over how it was going on, journalists like Mr. Taylor sometimes acted as arbitrators for their audiences.
Mr Federev, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, tweeted from the same surveillance tape of a soldier at the courier service counter. Mr Federev claimed that the man had been identified as a “Russian special forces officer” who had committed atrocities in Bucharest and was “sending all the stolen goods to his family.”
Mr Federev added: “We will find out who the killers are.”
The technology also has the potential to detect casualties or track specific units. New York security think tank Peter Singer, a think tank in Washington, says the growing availability of information about people and their movements will make it easier to find those responsible for war crimes. However, it can make it difficult for civilians to lie down in a tense environment.
“Ukraine is the first major conflict we have seen using facial recognition technology on such a scale, but it is far from over,” said Mr Singer. “It will be increasingly difficult for future fighters to keep their identities secret, just as regular civilians walk the streets of your own city.”
“In a world of more data collection, everyone leaves a tail of points that can be connected,” he added.
That trail is not just online. Drone footage, satellite images, and photos and videos captured by the people of Ukraine are playing a role in understanding what is happening there.
Mr Toller of Bellingcat said the technology was not perfect. “It’s easy to misfire – that’s not to say,” he said. “But people are more right than wrong. They’ve figured out how to ensure identification. “
Faces can look the same, so secondary information in the form of an identification mark, a tattoo or clothing is important to ensure matching. Whether this will happen in an exciting, wartime situation is an open question.
Mr Toller is not sure how long he will have access to his favorite facial recognition tool. Since FindClone is located in Russia, it has been under ban, he said.
“I still have about 30 days left in my service, so I’m desperately trying to add more juice to my account,” Mr Toller said. “I have a friend in Kyrgyzstan. I’m trying to use his bank card to get my account back up. “