Facial recognition: Last month a controversial face recognition company, Clearview AI, announced it had offered its expertise to the Ukrainian government.
In more than a thousand cases – to identify the living and the dead.
The man is lying motionless on the ground, with his head down. His body was naked, with the exception of Calvin Klein’s boxers. Her eyes are as red as bruises.
The BBC has seen photos taken at the scene, but is unaware of the circumstances surrounding her death. There is clear evidence of head injuries. She had a tattoo on her left shoulder.
The Ukrainian authorities did not know who the man was. So they decided to turn to a more radical approach: seeing faces using artificial intelligence.
Clearview is probably the most popular, controversial, face-to-face program in the world.
The company has released billions of images to social media companies. Such as Facebook and Twitter. To build a massive website of what its CEO and founder Hoan Ton-That calls a “face search engine”.
“It works like Google. But instead of putting a string of words or text, the user uploads a facial image,” explains Mr. Ton-That.
The company is facing a series of legal challenges. Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter have sent Clearview stops and stops – asking them to stop using images from sites. The Office of the Information Commissioner in the UK has even fined the company for failing. To inform people that it is collecting their photos.
Ukrainian government has raised questions
Now, its use by the Ukrainian government has raised questions. About the consequences of incorporating this powerful technology into active war.
Ton-Lokho says 3,200 government institutions purchased or tested the technology.
After Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, the founder of Clearview saw another application for technology.
“We’ve seen pictures of people who were prisoners of war and fleeing situations, and you know. It made us think that this might be a technology that could be useful in identifying, and verifying,” he said.
He soon handed over the technology to the Ukrainian government – an accepted gift.
Back in Kharkiv, authorities took a photo of the deceased’s face – his head up, his eyes down towards the camera.
They took a photo, and sent it to the Clearview website. Investigations have returned a few photographs of a person very similar to the deceased.
One photo was taken on a hot day. The man was naked. He had a tattoo on his left shoulder.
Design is matched
Using facial recognition to identify the dead is nothing new.
“We’ve been using these things for years,” said Aric Toler, research director at Bellingcat. An organization that focuses on investigative journalism.
In 2019, Bellingcat used face recognition technology to help identify a Russian man. Who had filmed the torture and murder of a Syrian prisoner. This is not the first face recognition battle.
But its use in Ukraine is much broader than in any previous war. Mr Toler said he was using the FindClone face detection platform in Russia. And that it was very helpful in identifying dead Russian soldiers.
Like Clearview, FindClone searches for publicly available online images, including Russian social media pages.
Even people who do not have social media accounts can be found.
“They may not have a social media profile but their wives or girlfriends … sometimes they have profiles and live in a small town with a large military base. Or they may have many friends in their group right now,” Mr Toler explains, describing FindClone as a search tool.
This last point is fundamental to understanding the power of facial recognition technology.
It means that even if a person has never had a social media profile, and then thinks he or she has deleted the Internet from his or her photos. He or she can still be found. By appearing on a photo uploaded by a friend or by being behind a random photo online. They are on a website.
Question of accuracy
Critics, however, point out that face recognition technology is far from ideal – and that during wartime, mistakes can have catastrophic consequences.
Clearview is not just used to identify bodies in Ukraine.
Clearview showed the BBC an email, from a Ukrainian center, confirming that the program was being used to identify survivors.
“This program has given us the opportunity to immediately verify the accuracy. Of the data of the arrested suspects” read an email.
“During the use of Clearview Facial recognition.
This is of concern to some commentators.
Conor Healy is a face recognition specialist for IPVM, because an organization that reviews security technologies.
“It is important for the Ukrainian military to realize that this is not a 100% way to determine. Whether a person is your friend or your enemy,” Mr Healy said.
“It should not be the technology of life or death where you pass or fail.