The head of US facial recognition firm Clearview AI has confirmed that Ukraine is using its facial recognition technology to aid in its fight against Russia’s military invasion.

On Monday Clearview AI told Reuters that Ukraine’s defence ministry began using it’s facial recognition technology on Saturday.

It is reportedly using the facial recognition system to uncover and identify Russian operatives, as well as combat misinformation. The system is also being used to identify dead Russian soldiers.

Identifying Russians

It has been widely reported in the media that Ukraine government has already set up a service which the families of serving Russia soldiers can contact, in order to find out if their family member has been captured, killed or injured.

Ukraine last week claimed that it has killed over 11,000 Russian troops and destroyed hundreds of Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and even helicopters.

Now Reuters reported that Ukraine is receiving free access to Clearview AI’s search engine for faces.

This is reportedly helping Ukrainian authorities vet people of interest at checkpoints, among other uses, Lee Wolosky, an adviser to Clearview and former diplomat under US presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden was quoted as saying.

Presumably this Clearview data will also feed into Ukraine’s service for concerned Russian military family members.

Clearview AI’s plans started forming after Russia invaded Ukraine, and chief executive Hoan Ton-That sent a letter to Kyiv offering assistance, according to a copy seen by Reuters.

Clearview said it had not offered the technology to Russia.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense did not reply to requests for comment, Reuters reported.

The Clearview founder said his startup had more than 2 billion images from the Russian social media service VKontakte at its disposal, out of a database of over 10 billion photos total.

That database can help Ukraine identify the dead more easily than trying to match fingerprints and works even if there is facial damage, Ton-That wrote.

Reuters also reported that Ton-That’s letter also said Clearview’s technology could be used to reunite refugees separated from their families, identify Russian operatives, and help the government debunk false social media posts related to the war.

However the exact purpose for which Ukraine’s defence ministry is using the technology is unclear, Ton-That said. Other parts of Ukraine’s government are expected to deploy Clearview in the coming days, he and Wolosky said.

Ton-That said Clearview should never be the sole source of identification and that he would not want the technology to be used in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which created legal standards for humanitarian treatment during war.

Global aid

The West, and indeed much of the world, has pledged to help Ukraine in its hour of need.

Besides military equipment from the British, US etc, commercial businesses have also stepped up to offer help.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX for example activated its Starlink Internet satellites over Ukraine, to help the country continue communicating, as Russia forces seek to cut off electricity, water, and Internet services.

SpaceX has also donated thousands of Starlink terminals to help Ukraine keep its online communication channels open.

Image may be subject to copyright

Elon Musk himself offered practical advice to help reduce the risk of the systems being targetted by Russian missiles.

Legal troubles

However Clearview AI is regarded by some as a controversial entity.

Last November it landed itself in hot water with the British data protection watchdog, after the ICO said it intends to fine the New York-based firm £17 million, and it “issued a provisional notice to stop further processing of the personal data of people in the UK and to delete it following alleged serious breaches of the UK’s data protection laws.”

And many tech firms are opposed to Clearview AI, which has been on the receiving end of multiple lawsuits in the United States.

Clearview AI is a facial recognition company that developed technology to match faces to a database of more than 10 billion faces indexed from Internet social media websites and other sources such as Twitter, YouTube, Google and Facebook.

This policy has angered social networking firms.

In January 2020 Twitter demanded that Clearview delete all the images it had pulled from its platform, and stop all photo collection going forward.

Google and Facebook have also filed cease-and-desist letters.

But the damage may have already been done, after Clearview AI admitted in February 2020 that its image database had been stolen.

In May 2020, the firm was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in which it alleged that Clearview’s technology runs afoul of the 2008 Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act.

In March 2021, the firm was also hit with another lawsuit in California by two immigrants’ rights groups, namely the Hispanic social network Mijente, campaign group NorCal Resist, and four individuals who identify as political activists.

They alleged that Clearview AI’s software is still used by state and federal law enforcement to identify individuals, despite the fact that several California cities have banned government use of facial recognition technology.

Clearview AI has also been warned to remove Canadian faces from its database.

Clearview AI for its part insists it is doing nothing wrong, and that it complies with all applicable law and its conduct is fully protected by the First Amendment in the United States.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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