Inside the 50 days since Moscow’s operation started, Ukrainian authorities have conducted over 8,600 facial recognition lookups on dead or captured Russian soldiers. Using the scan results to distinguish bodies, Ukraine is sending photos of corpses to their mothers in what could be one of the most grotesque implementations of the innovation to date.
The country’s IT Army, a volunteer group of hackers and activists directed by the Ukrainian government, claims it has already employed those identifications to notify the relatives of 582 Russians who have died, including through providing them images of the bodies that have been abandoned.
The Ukrainians promote the employment of Clearview AI’s face-scanning software as a nasty but successful tool to incite rebellion inside Russia, deter other fighters, and speed the end of a deadly war.
However, several military and technology specialists fear that the plan would backfire, igniting outrage over a shock operation aimed at mothers who may live thousands of miles away from the Kremlin’s war machine’s operators.
According to Stephanie Hare, a surveillance expert in London, the West’s sympathy with Ukraine makes it appealing to embrace such an extreme conduct aimed to profit off family anguish. However, she believes that contacting troops’ parents is “classic psychological warfare” that might establish a hazardous precedent for future battles.
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“If it were Russian soldiers doing this with Ukrainian mothers, we might say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s barbaric,’ ” she said. “And is it actually working? Or is it making them say: ‘Look at these lawless, cruel Ukrainians, doing this to our boys?’ ”
As Russia’s conflict in Ukraine begins to take shape, foreboding rhetoric grows in popularity. According to the Washington Post, Clearview AI’s chief executive, Hoan Ton-That, upwards of 340 individuals from five Ukrainian government departments can now utilize the company’s platform to conduct face recognition checks whenever they choose, for free.
Clearview workers are now undertaking weekly, if not daily, Zoom orientation meetings with incoming police and military personnel who are interested in gaining access. Ton-That recounted when Ukrainians experienced multiple “oh, wow” moments when they saw how much information they could obtain from a single corpse scan, containing family pictures, social media posts, and relationship information.
He claims that some of them are scanning faces on the battlefield using Clearview’s smartphone software. Others have signed on for training while on patrol or stationed at a roadblock, with the night sky observable behind them.
“They’re so enthusiastic,” Ton-That said. “Their energy is really high. They say they’re going to win, every call.”
After seeing Russian propaganda suggesting that soldiers caught there were performers or frauds, Ton-That said the company initially pitched its services to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense last month.
The technology was largely utilized by police officers and federal investigators in the United States to examine if a photograph of a suspect or witness resembled any of the 20 billion images collected from social media and the public Internet in their database.
However, Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte, often referred to as VK, contributed around 10% of the information, rendering it a possible helpful resource for battlefield scanning, Ton-That said.
Russia’s war dead contradicts the country’s mantra of “no one is left behind.”
Clearview provided The Post with emails proving the software’s usage from three Ukrainian agencies: the National Police, the Defense Ministry, and a third agency that requested anonymity. Officials from those agencies, as well as the IT Army, refused or did not reply to demands for more information. Clearview refused to name the two additional Ukrainian agencies that it claimed were utilizing its software at the time.
The Defense Ministry stated it evaluated Clearview by analyzing images of dead troops’ faces and was “pleasantly surprised” when the technology provided connections to the Russians’ VK and Instagram profiles, according to emails supplied to The Post by Clearview.
Other organizations examined the technique as well, thanks to the military’s prodding, Ton-That said. In emails obtained by The Post, a National Police official said the agency searched the face of an unidentified body discovered with its head caved in in Kharkiv and was directed to the VK profile of a 32-year-old man who had been pictured with followers of the Kharkiv People’s Republic, a separatist group.
According to Ton-That, Ukrainian authorities have used the app to verify people’s IDs at military checkpoints and to determine whether a Ukrainian is a potential Russian infiltrator or saboteur. He claimed that the technology might dissuade Russian forces from perpetrating war crimes because they are afraid of being identified, and that the Ukrainians are contemplating using it to authenticate the identity of Ukrainian refugees and their hosts fleeing for safety.
However, officials’ tactic of telling relatives of their loved ones’ deaths has sparked fears that it may enrage the very Russians they are trying to convince. Other Ukrainian activities, such as holding press conferences with captured Russian soldiers and sharing images and videos of prisoners of war on social media, have been viewed in Russia as a humiliation by the adversary, according to one national security expert.
Ukraine’s gruesome web campaign to create anti-Putin opposition may be in violation of the Geneva Convention.
The IT Army shared a video to Telegram earlier this month that featured fragments of what it described as chats with Russian soldiers’ relatives. Someone who was provided photographs of a wounded Russian soldier’s face commented, “It’s photoshop!!! THIS CAN’T BE.” “This is what happens when you send people to war,” the sender replied, according to the video.
A stranger sent out a text to a Russian mother claiming her kid had died, coupled with a picture of a man’s body in the mud, face wincing and mouth agape, in another discussion. Before the sender sent another photo of a gloved hand clutching the man’s military paperwork, the recipient expressed his disbelief and stated that it was not him.
“Why are you doing this?” the recipient wrote back. “Do you want me to die? I already don’t live. You must be enjoying this.”
The stranger stated that thousands of young guys were already dead. This is “the only way to stop all this madness,” the sender wrote. “How many more people must die?”
The talks were not directly verified by the Post, and efforts to contact the mother were fruitless. However, other parts of the video show Clearview’s facial identification search interface with Russian troop names. A search of one corpse’s face yields the VK profile of a man photographed standing on a beach in one scene. The man’s internet profile showed that he was a member of online clubs dedicated to the Russian army, as well as fitness, fishing, and barbecuing.
Ukraine’s leader waged a digital war with 4,000 letters and four hours of sleep.
Ukraine is also utilizing face detection to identify Russian forces captured on camera plundering Ukrainian houses and stores, according to a representative from Ukraine’s Digital Transformation Ministry.
The head of that ministry, Mykhailo Fedorov, posted the name, hometown, and personal photo of a man he said was videotaped sending hundreds of pounds of plundered clothing from a Belarus postal service to his residence in eastern Russia on Twitter and Instagram earlier this month. He wrote, “Our technology will find all of them.”
The technology has also been used to discover individuals who have been jailed in the country and scan their social media for anything unusual, including their “range of contacts,” according to an official from the organization who spoke on the condition of anonymity to Clearview. The official said in an email published with The Post that over 1,000 such searches were conducted in the first few weeks.
According to some commentators, Ukraine might deploy modern technology to contrast with Russia’s more primitive military hardware or to seek humanitarian goals in a struggle characterized by horrendous Russian attacks.
However, because facial recognition search outcomes are imprecise, several specialists are concerned that a mistaken identity may result in the wrong person being informed that their child has died — or, in the midst of a conflict, could be the difference between life and death. Clearview has been asked to stop working in Ukraine by Privacy International, a digital-rights organization, because “the potential consequences would be too atrocious to be tolerated — such as mistaking civilians for soldiers.” (Clearview’s search function is accurate, according to Ton-That, even in cases of extreme “facial damage.”)
Clearview AI, a facial recognition company, has told investors that it wants to expand beyond law enforcement.
During the Afghanistan war, the US military employed biometric readers to gather fingerprints, eye scans, and face images of civilians in the hopes of confirming allies and identifying threats. However, some of the gadgets were left behind during the forces’ hasty departure last year, prompting concerns that the sensitive information could be abused. (According to Ton-That, Clearview’s online system allows the corporation to rapidly revoke entry if an account slips into the hands of the wrong people.)
Clearview has sparked widespread outrage for years because of the manner it collects photos for its database, gathering enormous volumes without the knowledge of owners from social networking networks and other websites. Government probes, continuing lawsuits, and demands from governments to remove their citizens’ data have all been brought against the corporation. Members of Congress have advocated withholding government funds from Clearview on the grounds that its photographs were taken illegally.
The company said it sought to raise $50 million in an investor presentation initially reported by The Post in February to extend its products to private-industry clients and increase its data-collection powers so that “almost everyone in the world will be identifiable.”
Ukraine’s persistent usage of Clearview searches has thrust the private firm into the middle of a diplomatically tense debate – one in which even the US government has treaded carefully to avoid sparking a worldwide crisis. According to Hare, the corporation seems keen to “cash in on tragedy” by using its work in Ukraine to promote itself to government clients throughout the world.
Ton-That said, the company’s main goal is to assist in the defense of a country under siege. He did agree, though, that the battle has served as a “good example for other parts of the U.S. government to see how these use cases work.”
“This is a new war,” he said. And the Ukrainians are “very creative with what they’ve been able to do.”