How the facial recognition service Clearview AI helps to identify Russian war criminals in Ukraine

Clearview AI, an American facial recognition service, is actively used by Ukrainian border guards and the National Police during the full-scale war Russia started in Ukraine. In particular, it helps to look for and identify Russian war criminals, people involved in the kidnapping of Ukrainian children, and other representatives of the occupation forces.

AIN.Capital spoke with CEO of the startup, Hoan Ton-That, about how Clearview AI helps to identify perpetrators of the war crimes and look for missing people, as well as about plans to open a Ukrainian office.

Photo of the State Border Service of Ukraine

Are you planning to launch an office here in Ukraine?

We are considering it right now – there is so much great talent here for software development. Also, it’s an excellent place to test new products, especially security related because there is a stronger need for security products here now than anywhere else. Your guys have to develop drone-based tech, AI, and other digital warfare really quickly. 

And all the Ukrainian software developers I’ve met here are really great, as a software developer I can confirm that. There’s a lot of potential here, after, and even during the war. 

You are working with the Ukrainian government. How it all started?

When the war started we reached out to them, thinking that our tech could be helpful, though we didn’t understand at the time the scope of its potential usefulness here in Ukraine. We passed a message to Ukrainian agencies with a former ambassador and a week later got an email from the Ukrainian Border Service and Ministry of Defence. 

During the Zoom call, we demonstrated how it worked. They sent me some test photos and right away our service identified who the people in those photos were. So Border Service started using it, and the word spread amongst other agencies. During my first visit to Kyiv, I met some of the people I had seen only via Zoom. 

Hoan Ton-That with the Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine Mykhailo Fyodorov (source)

Now 14 government agencies are using it, it’s been used to identify thousands of war criminals and over a thousand missing people. That’s just one Ukrainian agency using it. And IAd I think there’s a potential for more collaboration. We are constantly learning new ways to use our software so we can improve it. 

Our Board Guard Service said they were able to identify 10 000 Russian war criminals via ClearView. Is it accurate?

I think they meant 10 000 identifications overall. It includes 50 people involved in the recent human trafficking of Ukrainian children put up for adoption in Russia, more than 700 civilian prisoners of war, and over 3,900 servicemen of the Russian Federation. The National Police of Ukraine also worked a lot with Clearview to identify war criminals. In previous wars, there was little or no way to identify who the person committing war crimes was. Now we have photo and video footage. So for the first time, there is an option to run the search and find a VK profile or other related information. And after the verification, they know who did this. 

Do you have datasets of photos of Russian soldiers and other representatives of the occupation forces?

We have over 2 bln images from VK. And that was before the war, now we have much more data from VK and other social media sites. 

How accurate is your tech? There was this horrid video of Russians decapitating a Ukrainian POW. Could your tech identify them?

I saw the video at the meeting with Ukrainian government agencies and I just couldn’t make myself look. But our tech is quite accurate and surprisingly effective in such cases, if there is a face or part of a face visible. 

I could show you some examples we cannot share. There were photos of dead Russian soldiers with faces and bodies mutilated to the point of being unrecognizable but still, Clearview was able to match those with VK profiles. 

Even as software engineers we are constantly surprised by what AI can do, it’s on the verge of magic.

There is an agency in the US called the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that tests thousands of algorithms o facial recognition. And ours is the second best in the world, number one is a Chinese company. One of the tests is to pick a particular photo out of 12 mln. So our accuracy is about 99.85%. 

 And even if our service should make a mistake, Ukrainian agencies always make sure to verify the info.  

Are there cases of people being identified and prosecuted due to your tech?

There was a video of Ukrainian POWs shot in the head on CNN and I remember texting a National Police representative about it, and Clearview was used successfully in that identification. 

There is another thing to it because with this level of deanonymization if you are on the Russian side you might just start thinking – do you really want to go to war if they know who you are? This might be the very first-time war criminals have nowhere to hide. 

Also, Clearview could be used to find missing and kidnapped kids. We have a feature that gives an alert when a particular missing child has another photo appears on the internet. 

What are non-warfare use cases for your service?

Missing persons, and missing IDs, there’s a strong security need for such tech, even after the war ended. For example, If I’m opening a bank account and opt-in to use face recognition to log on to it, that could prevent loads of scams and fraud schemes. 

Many opinion leaders in tech share their concerns about AI use, because it is not quite controllable. What do you think?

Our philosophy is that AI should be a regulated technology. That’s why we only sell it to government agencies and law enforcement. If we’d sold it to anyone it would be a lot more of a misusage. ChatGPT has lots of potential and many people use it, but we still do not know all the bonuses and downfalls of such tech. I think there’s gonna be a lot more positives than negatives about it. But still tech companies should be more responsible about it. They hold lots of power and responsibility comes with it. But I’m still a huge believer in AI. 

This war has been named the war of technologies many times. Do you agree? 

There’s a lot of new tech that could help to win a war. And I believe Ukraine will win it. The first reason is the resolve of Ukrainians and morale being really high. But I do think that it is one of the first wars in history where digital tech has a lot of impact, the first digitally enabled war. 

It is basically streamed online and it helped Ukraine to gather so much support and isolate Russia. War atrocities are hard to look upon but being constantly present online they are hard to look away from. All the imagery from cell phones, satellites, and CCTV could also be used in future trials to condemn those who are responsible.