Ukraine is Using Facial Recognition to Contact Kin of Dead Russian Soldiers


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(Photo: Gerhard Reus/Unsplash)
Those in touch with facial recognition software have always warned the technology could carry some pretty grim uses, but this one is unexpected: The Ukrainian military is using facial recognition AI to identify fallen Russian soldiers, then contact their next of kin.

Ukraine has used the technology to analyze the faces of more than 8,600 deceased or captured Russian soldiers since Putin ordered the invasion in February, according to a new report by The Washington Post. These scans have been used to identify and contact the families of 582 individuals—a somber task that falls to the Ukrainian IT Army, which is made up of volunteers but directed by the government. Some of the death notifications even include photos of the deceased soldier in question. 

The facial recognition AI in question is by US software company Clearview AI, which has made headlines before for threatening to effectively end anonymity as we know it. The company’s namesake app works by matching facial scans against a massive database made up of photos from social media, digital wallets, and other websites and mobile apps. These photos are connected to other data, revealing where the target individual has lived, worked, shopped, or traveled, among other information. Though Clearview AI isn’t said to exist for any one specific purpose, it’s most notably used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies who use the app in numerous (and sometimes worrisome) ways, from assisting with identity theft or child pornography cases to identifying activists at protests. 

Image matches within the Clearview AI app. (Image: Clearview)

The use of Clearview AI’s technology in war is new, though, having only been possible for the last couple years. Those with knowledge of the matter appear to be split on whether the resulting harm is worth any advantages it offers. Some argue the facial recognition-powered death notifications help clear the smokescreen preventing Russian citizens from fully acknowledging what’s happening in Ukraine. Meanwhile, one surveillance researcher pointed out to The Washington Post that targeting soldiers’ families in such a way could constitute psychological warfare and set a dangerous precedent for future military conflicts. Other experts worry any misidentifications could result in the wrong family being told their child has died. 

Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That obviously claims wartime facial recognition has more advantages than disadvantages (though his defense isn’t immediately money-motivated, as the app access granted to Ukraine has apparently been free of charge). Ton-That told The Washington Post that the technology could help discourage Russian forces from committing further war crimes now that soldiers risk being personally identified. If Russia’s history of previous war crimes are anything to go by, though, it’s unlikely that facial recognition software will help. 

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