The country’s IT army, a volunteer force of hackers and activists taking its direction from the Ukrainian government, says it has used these identifications to inform families of the deaths of 582 Russians, including by sending them pictures of the bodies left behind.
Ukrainians are fighting for the use of face-scanning software from US technology firm Clearview AI as a brutal but effective way to inflame disagreement in Russia, deter other fighters and hasten an end to a devastating war.
But some military and technology analysts are concerned that the strategy could backfire and provoke anger over a shock campaign aimed at mothers that could be thousands of miles from the driver of the Kremlin’s war machine.
Western solidarity with Ukraine makes it tempting to support such a radical act designed to exploit family grief, said Stephanie Hare, a surveillance researcher in London. But contacting soldiers’ parents, she said, is “classic psychological warfare” and could set a dangerous new standard for future conflicts.
“If it was Russian soldiers doing this to Ukrainian mothers, we might say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s barbaric,'” she said. “And does it actually work? Or does it make them say, ‘Look at these lawless, cruel Ukrainians who are doing this to our boys?’ ”
As Russia’s war in Ukraine founds, ominous rhetoric is gaining ground
Clearview AI’s CEO, Hoan Ton-That, told The Washington Post that more than 340 officials across five Ukrainian government agencies can now use its tool to run face recognition searches whenever they want, for free.
Clearview employees now hold weekly, sometimes daily, training calls over Zoom with new police and military officials wanting access. Ton-That told of several “oh, wow” moments when the Ukrainians saw how much data – including family photos, social media posts and relationship details – they could collect from a single cadaver scan.
Some of them use the Clearview mobile app to scan faces while on the battlefield, he said. Others have logged in for training while stationed at a checkpoint or out on patrol, with the night sky visible behind their faces.
“They’re so enthusiastic,” Ton-That said. “Their energy is really high. They say they want to win, every single call.”
The company, Ton-That said, only offered its services last month to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry after seeing Russian propaganda claiming soldiers captured were actors or fraudsters.
The system had primarily been used by police officers and federal investigators in the United States to see if a picture of a suspect or witness matched others in their database of 20 billion pictures taken from social media and the public Internet.
But about 10 percent of the database has come from Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte, known as VK, making it a potentially useful tool for battlefield scans, Ton-That said.
Russia’s war dead contradict its slogan that no one is left behind
Clearview shared with The Post emails from three Ukrainian agencies – the National Police, the Ministry of Defense and a third agency asking the company to remain confidential – confirming that the software was in use. Officials at these agencies and the IT Army declined to comment further or did not respond to requests for comment. Clearview declined to identify two other Ukrainian agencies it said they are currently using its software.
In emails that Clearview shared with The Post, a Defense Department representative said it had tested Clearview by scanning images of dead soldiers ‘faces and was “pleasantly surprised” when the tool returned links to the Russians’ VK and Instagram accounts .
With the encouragement of the military, other agencies also tested the technology, Ton-That said. A national police official said in emails shared with The Post that the agency scanned the face of an unidentified body found in Kharkiv with its head hollowed out and was pointed at the VK profile of a 32-year-old man who was been photographed with supporters of the Kharkiv People’s Republic, a separatist group.
Ukrainian agencies, Ton-That said, have used the app to verify the identities of people at military checkpoints and to check whether a Ukrainian is a possible Russian infiltrator or saboteur. He argued that the system could deter Russian soldiers from committing war crimes, for fear of being identified, and said that Ukrainians are considering using the tool to verify the identity of Ukrainian refugees and their hosts when fleeing for safety.
But officials ‘strategy of informing families of their loved ones’ deaths has raised concerns that it could anger the same Russians they had hoped to persuade. A national security expert said that other Ukrainian actions – holding news conferences with captured Russian soldiers and posting pictures and videos on social media showing prisoners of war – have been seen inside Russia not as a welcome exposure to the truth, but as a humiliation of the enemy.
The bloody online campaign that Ukraine hopes will then allow anti-Putin disagreement to be in violation of the Geneva Convention
A video that the IT Army sent to Telegram this month showed excerpts of what the group characterized as conversations with relatives of Russian soldiers. In a chat, someone who was sent pictures of a bloody Russian soldier’s face replied, “It’s photoshop !!! IT CANNOT BE.” The sender wrote back according to the footage: “This is what happens when you send people to war.”
In another conversation, a stranger sent a message to a Russian mother, in which he said that her son was dead, along with a picture showing a man’s body in the dirt – his face grimacing and the corners of his mouth. The recipient replied in disbelief, saying it was not him until the sender passed on another picture showing a gloved hand holding the man’s military documents.
“Why are you doing this?” the recipient wrote back. “Do you want me to die? I’m not alive yet. You must enjoy this.”
The stranger replied that young men were already dying in the thousands. This is “the only way to stop all this madness,” the sender wrote. “How many more people are going to die?”
The Post could not independently confirm the talks, and attempts to reach the mother were in vain. But other elements in the same video show Clearview’s face recognition search interface along with names of Russian soldiers. In a clip, the search of one corpse’s face reveals the VK profile of a man photographed standing on a beach. The man’s profile, which remains online, shows that he followed online groups dedicated to the Russian army as well as fitness, fishing and barbecue.
4,000 letters and four hours of sleep: Ukrainian leader leads digital war
In addition to scanning corpses, Ukraine also uses face recognition to identify Russian soldiers caught on camera in looting Ukrainian homes and storefronts, an official from Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation told The Post.
Mykhailo Fedorov, the head of this ministry, this month divided on Twitter and Instagram is the name, hometown and personal image of a man who, he said, was busy sending hundreds of pounds of looted clothing from a Belarusian post office to his home in eastern Russia. “Our technology will find them all,” he wrote.
A spokesman for the agency, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Clearview that it has used the system to identify people who had been detained in the country and check their social media for anything suspicious, including their “selection of contacts.” More than 1,000 such searches were run within the first few weeks, the official said in an email that Clearview shared with The Post.
Some analysts said Ukraine could use the advanced technology to draw a contrast to Russia’s more rudimentary military equipment or to pursue humanitarian purposes in a conflict marked by terrible Russian attacks.
But the search results for facial recognition are imperfect, and some experts worry that a misidentification could lead to the wrong person being told that their child is dead – or in war madness, it could mean the difference between life or death. Privacy International, a digital rights group, has called on Clearview to end its work in Ukraine, saying “the potential consequences would be too cruel to be tolerated – such as confusing civilians with soldiers.” (Ton-That has said that Clearview’s search tool is accurate, including in the case of serious “facial injury.”)
The face recognition firm Clearview AI tells investors that it is seeking massive expansion beyond law enforcement
The US military used biometric scanners to collect fingerprints, eye scans and facial images of people during the Afghanistan war, believing it could help confirm allies and identify threats. But during the troops’ rapid withdrawal last year, some of the devices were abandoned, creating fears that the sensitive data could be misused. (Clearview’s online system, Ton-That said, allows the company to quickly disconnect if an account falls into the wrong hands.)
Clearview has aroused international controversy for years due to the way it collected photos for its database, and harvested huge amounts from social media companies and other internet sites without the consent of the owners. The company has faced government investigations, ongoing lawsuits and demands from countries to delete their citizens’ data. Members of Congress have proposed blocking federal money from going to Clearview on the grounds that its images have been illegally obtained.
In an investor presentation first unveiled in February by The Post, the company said it wanted to raise $ 50 million to expand its offerings to private clients and increase its data collection powers so that “almost everyone in the world will be identifiable.”
Ukraine’s aggressive use of Clearview searches has pushed private enterprise to the forefront of a diplomatic conflict – a conflict that even the US government has cautiously engaged in for fear of triggering a global war. Hare, the researcher, said the company seemed eager to use its Ukraine work as a way to advertise itself to government customers around the world and “cash in on tragedy”.
Ton-That said the company’s only ambition is to help defend a besieged country. But he also acknowledged that the war has helped set 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 have been capable of.”
Jeanne Whalen of Riga, Latvia, and Magda Jean-Louis of Washington contributed to this report.