Following NATO estimates that around 40,000 Russian soldiers have either been killed, wounded, missing, or captured, Ukrainian officials revealed that they have been using facial recognition technology to identify the corpses of fallen Russian soldiers.
They use this information to trace their families and notify them of their deaths in either a heartless move or a humane act of kindness, depending on how you see it. Afterward, families can coordinate with Ukrainian authorities to arrange the collection of their dead.
“As a courtesy to the mothers of those soldiers, we are disseminating this information over social media to at least let families know that they’ve lost their sons and to then enable them to come to collect their bodies,” Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov said. It is important to note that Fedorov also heads the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation.
Reports from Reuters earlier this month said that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense was offered support by Clearview AI, an American firm that specializes in facial recognition software. At the time, the applications of the technology were still unverified.
The service works by scouring the internet for publicly available images and cross-referencing them with uploaded photos. The firm claimed to have over 2 billion images in its search engine from the popular Russian social media platform VKontakte. Their assistance for Ukraine was free of charge, according to the company.
The Ukrainian government has provided an online form for Russian relatives to claim the dead bodies. However, Fedorov did not give details on the logistics of transporting the bodies back to Russia.
In response to this technology, a Kremlin spokesman said, “We have no knowledge of this. There are too many fakes coming out of Ukraine.” The representative did not give further information.
Although a promising technology, the use of facial recognition has sparked debates over its accuracy and legality.
The Important Question: Does It Actually Work?
With the information blackout in Russia, families of soldiers are left in the dark about the wellbeing of their family members who might be in Ukraine. The worst news these people can receive is a false claim that their loved ones are dead, especially in a foreign land where it can be difficult to get them back.
“If the technology is truly only used for identifying the dead, which I’m quite skeptical of, the biggest risk is misidentification and wrongfully telling people that their loved ones have died,” said Albert Fox Cahn to The Guardian. Cahn is the founder of the privacy advocacy group The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP).
The use of facial recognition in post-mortem identification has not yet been adopted by the US Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. This is because the technology is not a widely trusted method in the forensic community. According to the Head of the Forensic Medicine Department at Monash University, Richard Bassed, the accuracy of facial recognition systems can be unreliable, particularly when used on diseased subjects.
Bassed, who has been studying facial recognition, explained that injuries, clouded eyes, and blank faces of a dead body could severely affect the efficacy of the system, rendering it near useless. According to him, fingerprints, DNA, and dental records are still the most trusted means to confirm somebody’s identity.
Federov did not give a specific number on how many bodies were identified by the software but claimed that there is a “high” rate of identified bodies claimed by their families. Independent sources have not yet verified this claim. The Vice Prime Minister also disclosed that the technology was not being used on dead Ukrainian soldiers but did not care to explain why this was so.
Is Face Recognition in This Context Legal?
There is also a question of legality in the use of facial recognition. Opponents of facial recognition say that the technology violates privacy rights and poses a threat of misuse.
Just recently, Italy fined Clearview $22 million for violating the EU consumer law and demanded that the company delete data on Italian residents. The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner Office and officials from France have also demanded Clearview to stop processing data on their nationals. Clearview is also facing a legal battle in the US Federal Court in Chicago after consumers claim the firm violated the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. More so, Facebook (Meta) had also demanded that Clearview stop taking data from its platforms.
Transparency issues of how collected data in Ukraine will be used is also under question.
“I have no transparency around how about data is used, retained, and shared,” said Cahn, who doubted the possibility of enforcing restrictions in an active warzone.
“Once the technology is introduced into the conflict for one reason, it will inevitably be used for others. Clearview AI has no safeguards against that sort of misuse of the technology, whether it’s investigating people at checkpoints, interrogations, or even targeted killings,” he added.
Despite the nagging issues, Clearview ensured that operators were trained to use the tool safely and responsibly.
“War zones can be dangerous when there is no way to tell apart enemy combatants from civilians. Facial recognition technology can help reduce uncertainty and increase safety in these situations,” said the company.
The company also claimed a 99.85% accuracy rate in some tests that tasked the software to identify the correct face out of 12 million images.