Face recognition is identifying people who have been killed, displaced, or recorded perpetrating alleged war crimes in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

What’s new: Clearview AI, a startup that has been criticized for harvesting online images without subjects’ permission, made its face recognition system freely available to the Ukrainian government, The New York Times reported. Researchers unaffiliated with the Ukrainian government are using similar tools to analyze images of the conflict.

How it works: Clearview has created 200 accounts at five Ukrainian agencies. Officials have used its app to conduct over 5,000 searches.

  • In emails provided to the Times, Ukrainian national police described using the app to identify a dead Russian soldier by matching the fighter’s image to pictures uploaded to Odnoklassniki, a Russian social media site. They also identified prisoners of war and confirmed the identities of noncombatants traveling within Ukraine.
  • A researcher with the Dutch investigative group Bellingcat used FaceClone, a Russian face recognition app trained on data from the social media site VKontakte, to identify Russian soldiers in videos that showed them mailing items looted from Ukrainian homes.
  • Earlier in the conflict, Bellingcat and Tactical Systems, a military training company, used Microsoft’s face recognition tech to debunk claims that a Russian pilot captured in Ukraine had been photographed alongside Vladimir Putin in 2017.
  • Analysts believe that Russian forces and sympathizers are using the technology in similar ways. “I’m sure there are Russian analysts tracking Twitter and TikTok with access to similar if not more powerful technology, who are not sharing what or who they find so openly,” Ryan Fedasiuk, a military research analyst, told Wired.

Yes, but: Face recognition can produce erroneous output. Amid military conflict, such errors — combined with wartime pressures — may cause people to be misidentified as war criminals, spies, or deceased.

Behind the news: AI is being used to analyze a variety of data types flowing out of Ukraine.

  • PrimerAI retrained a natural language model to recognize Russian slang and military jargon so it can transcribe unencrypted radio transmissions that have been intercepted and posted online.
  • Researchers at the UC Berkeley trained computer vision models on images from synthetic-aperture radar mounted on satellites, which can see through clouds, to identify damaged buildings.

Why it matters: The invasion of Ukraine — captured in an avalanche of photos, videos, aerial imagery, and radio transmissions shared on social media — is one of the most data-rich conflicts in history. Given this grim corpus, face recognition and other AI techniques can help to sketch a more complete picture of the battlefield.

We’re thinking: The ability to unmask war criminals and thereby help bring them to justice offers solace amid unspeakable misery. We hope it also will deter other offenders. To recover from this tragedy will require still greater ingenuity and fortitude. We join the international community in calling on Vladimir Putin to withdraw Russian forces immediately.

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