The country’s IT Army, a volunteer force of hackers and activists diverted from the Ukrainian government, says it used these IDs to inform the families of 582 Russians of the death, including by sending photos of abandoned bodies.
Ukrainians support use of US tech firm’s face scanning software Clearview AI As a brutal but effective way to incite opposition within Russia, discourage other fighters, and hasten the end of a devastating war.
But some military and technology analysts worry the strategy may backfire, fueling anger at a shock campaign aimed at mothers thousands of miles away from the drivers of the Kremlin’s war machine.
Stephanie Hare, a surveillance researcher in London, said the West’s solidarity with Ukraine made it tempting to support such radical action designed to take advantage of family grief. But communicating with soldiers’ families is “classic psychological warfare” and could set a dangerous new standard for future conflict, she said.
“If there were Russian soldiers doing this with Ukrainian mothers, we could have said, ‘Oh my God, this is barbaric,’” he said. “And does it really work? Or do you say to them, ‘Look at these lawless, cruel Ukrainians, is he doing this to our children?’ does it say?”
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Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI, told the Washington Post that more than 340 officials at five Ukrainian government agencies can now use his tool to run facial recognition searches at any time for free.
Clearview employees are now making weekly, sometimes daily, training calls via Zoom with new police and military officials looking to gain access. Ton-That described several “wow” moments as they witnessed how much data Ukrainians were able to gather from a single cadaver scan, including family photos, social media posts, and relationship details.
Some use Clearview’s mobile app to scan for faces on the battlefield, he said. Others logged in for training while at a checkpoint or on patrol, the night sky is seen from behind their faces.
“They’re very enthusiastic,” Ton-That said. “Their energy is really high. They say they will win on every call.”
The company, Ton-That, said it first offered its services to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry last month after it saw a piece of Russian propaganda claiming that the Russians were actors or fraudsters caught there.
The system was primarily used by police officers and federal investigators in the United States to see if a photograph of a suspect or witness matched other photographs in databases of 20 billion images taken from social media and the public internet.
About 10 percent of its database comes from Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte, known as VK, making it a potentially useful tool for battlefield scans, Ton-That said.
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Clearview shared with The Post emails from three Ukrainian agencies – the National Police, the Ministry of Defense, and a third agency that asked the company to remain anonymous – confirming the software was used. Officials at these agencies and the IT Army declined to comment further or did not respond to requests for comment. Clearview refused to identify the other two Ukrainian agencies He said he is currently using his software.
In emails Clearview shared with The Post, a Department of Defense representative said he tested Clearview by scanning photos of dead soldiers’ faces and were “pleasantly surprised” when the tool returned links to Russians’ VK and Instagram accounts.
Ton-That said that with the encouragement of the military, other institutions are also testing the technology. A National Police official said in emails shared with The Post, the agency scanned the face of an unidentified body found in Kharkiv with his head bowed, pointing to a VK profile of a 32-year-old man who was photographed with fans. He is from the Kharkov People’s Republic, a separatist group.
Ton-That said Ukrainian agencies use the app to verify the identities of people at military checkpoints and check whether a Ukrainian is a possible Russian spy or saboteur. He argued that the system could deter Russian soldiers from committing war crimes for fear of being exposed, and said Ukrainians are considering using the tool to verify the identities of Ukrainian refugees and hosts who fled for safety.
But the authorities’ strategy of notifying families of the death of loved ones has raised concerns that this might anger the Russians they hoped to persuade. Other Ukrainian actions, such as holding press conferences with captured Russian soldiers and posting photos and videos showing POWs on social media, were seen in Russia as an insult by the enemy, not a welcomed statement against the truth, a national security expert said.
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A video A message sent by the BT Army to Telegram this month featured snippets of what the group described as conversations Russian soldiers had with their relatives. In a chat, someone sent photos of the bloody face of a Russian soldier said, “This is photoshop!!! THIS CANNOT BE.” The sender wrote, according to the footage: “This is what happens if you send people to war.”
In another conversation, a stranger texted a Russian mother that her son had died, next to a photograph showing a man’s body in the dirt – grimacing and mouth open. The receiver replied in disbelief that it wasn’t him, before the sender provided another photo showing a gloved hand holding the man’s military documents.
“Why are you doing this?” Buyer wrote back. “You want me to die? I’m not living anyway. You must be enjoying it.”
The stranger said that thousands of young people were already dying. “The only way to stop all this madness,” the sender wrote. “How many more have to die?”
The mail was unable to independently verify the conversations, and attempts to reach the mother were unsuccessful. But other elements of the same video show the names of Russian soldiers, as well as Clearview’s facial recognition search interface. In one clip, searching the face of a corpse reveals a VK profile of a man photographed standing on the beach. The man’s profile, which remains online, shows that he follows online groups related to fitness, fishing and barbecue, as well as the Russian military.
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Ukraine, beyond scanning corpses, also uses facial recognition to identify Russian soldiers caught on cameras looting homes and shop windows in Ukraine, an official from Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation told The Post.
The head of that ministry, Mykhailo Fedorov, this month shared On Twitter and Instagram, the name, hometown, and personal photo of a man she says were recorded sending hundreds of pounds of looted clothing from a post office in Belarus to her home in eastern Russia were recorded. “Our technology will find them all,” she wrote.
An agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Clearview that the system uses the system to identify people detained in the country and checks their social media for anything suspicious, including their “contacts.” More than 1,000 such searches were made in the first few weeks, the official said in an email Clearview shared with The Post.
Some analysts said Ukraine could use advanced technology to contrast with Russia’s more primitive military equipment or to sustain humanitarian uses in a conflict marred by horrific Russian attacks.
But facial recognition search results are flawed, and some experts worry that misidentification could lead the wrong person to say their child is dead—or, in the frenzy of war, it could mean the difference between life and death. Privacy International, a digital rights group, Searched on Clearview He concluded his work in Ukraine, saying that “the potential consequences would be too cruel to be tolerated, such as mixing civilians with soldiers.” (Ton-That said Clearview’s search tool was accurate, including in cases of serious “face damage.”)
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The U.S. military used biometric scanners to collect fingerprints, eye scans, and facial photos of people during the Afghanistan war, and believed this could help authenticate allies and identify threats. But during the rapid withdrawal of troops last year, some devices were abandoned, raising fears that sensitive data could be misused. (Clearview’s online system, Ton-That, said it allows the company to quickly cut off access when an account falls into the wrong hands.)
Clearview has sparked international controversy for years for the way it collects photos for its database, collecting large amounts from social media companies and other Internet sites without the consent of their owners. The company has faced government investigations, ongoing lawsuits and requests from countries to delete their citizens’ data. Members of Congress proposed blocking federal money from going to Clearview on the grounds that the footage was obtained illegitimately.
In an investor presentation first announced by The Post in February, the company said it wanted to raise $50 million to expand its offerings to private sector clients and increase its data-gathering powers so that “virtually everyone in the world is identifiable.”
Ukraine’s aggressive use of Clearview searches has pushed the private company to the forefront of a diplomatically charged conflict – a conflict that even the US government has cautiously engaged in for fear of triggering a global war. Researcher Hare said the company appears keen to use its work in Ukraine as a way to advertise to government clients around the world and “profit from tragedy.”
Ton-Bu said the sole purpose of the company was to help defend a besieged country. But he also acknowledged that the war helped provide “a good example for other parts of the US government to see how these use cases work.”
“This is a new war,” he said. And Ukrainians are “very creative in what they can do”.
Jeanne Whalen from Riga, Latvia, and Magda Jean-Louis from Washington contributed to this report.