Both Ukraine and Russia Have Armed Facial Recognition – Here’s How
- Russia is using surveillance to track down anti-war protesters, rights activists say.
- Those who refuse to be photographed are illegally detained and sometimes tortured, they say.
- But in Ukraine, software courtesy of Clearview AI is helping find spies, identify the dead and reunite families.
In the public squares of Moscow, surveillance cameras fix all those who dare to gather in the shadow of the Kremlin or under the century-old yellow bricks of the FSB intelligence service.
And at Ukrainian checkpoints and morgues, even more surveillance cameras are being used, searching for Russian agents and identifying the thousands of dead.
Facial recognition technology is being used very differently on either side of Russia’s month-long war against Ukraine.
Last week, Ukraine began tapping into the treasure trove of faces curated by controversial facial recognition platform Clearview AI, the company confirmed to Insider.
Clearview, which has come under fire for its scrapping of social media images and its use by US law enforcement, is offering free access to its database, which includes two million images collected from the media service. social Russian VKontakte.
As Reuters first reported, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry is using the database to search for Russian infiltrators at checkpoints. Other uses include fighting misinformation, identifying the dead, and reuniting war-torn families.
“Ukrainian officials have expressed their appreciation for the use of technology,” CEO Hoan Ton-That told Insider on Monday. “Several agencies have used it and already had success.”
But in Russia, facial recognition technology is being used in more nefarious ways, say human rights activists: to silence dissent.
“There is no safe place,” Moscow-based anti-war and women’s rights activist Alyona Popova told Insider.
“We can be tracked, we can be arrested, wherever we are,” the outspoken activist said against Russia’s widespread surveillance of protesters.
“It’s a place of total surveillance, where the government collects our personal data, our biometric data, our faces and our messages when we are online.”
Collect faces, thousands at a time
Popova’s wake-up call came in September 2019, when she came face to face with a government camera as she joined a peaceful anti-government rally in Moscow.
City officials had approved the rally, held to protest past police brutality against protesters.
But in Sakharov Square that day, Popova and her fellow congregators were forced to go through metal detectors. Each was equipped with an eye-level surveillance camera.
Popova knew that Moscow police had been illegally photographing individual protesters since at least 2017; she believes the so-called “Safe City” system was used during her own arrest for unauthorized picketing outside the Russian parliament building in 2018.
But the 2019 rally was the first known mass harvest of faces of Russian dissent.
“Now they collect this data just because you attend a protest or rally,” she told Insider.
“They now have data on tens of thousands of protesters,” in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and Russia’s privacy and assembly laws, Popova said.
She and now-exiled opposition leader Vladimir Milov soon filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights; this trial is still pending.
Once officials know who you are, “they can arrest you that day, or days or even months later,” Popova said.
“And they know where you are” even on the go. “They have facial recognition in the subway station,” she said.
Police openly brag to detainees that they were caught using facial recognition, reports human rights organization OVD-Info.
It was a camera in the Moscow metro that led Russian police to human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina earlier this month on her 80th birthday.
Calls had spread on Telegram at the time for an anti-war demonstration in Manezhnaya Square; Gannushkina happened to be leaving a nearby metro station.
“She wasn’t even protesting,” said Anastasiia Kruope, a research assistant at Human Rights Watch who specializes in facial recognition in Russia.
Gannushkina was able to smuggle a message while in police custody, according to independent Russian media outlet Mediazona and Russian-language publication Caucasian Knot, now blocked in Russia.
“I’m sitting at the police station. They detained me at the entrance to the subway,” she said, according to the two publications.
“As the police explained, the cameras recognized my face,” added the elderly mathematician.
On March 15, Moscow began forcing people to go mask-free on the metro, Mediazona reported. Popova believes the move is designed to help surveillance cameras better record and recognize wanted faces.
The Kremlin’s war against “lies”
Nearly 15,000 people across Russia have been detained since the start of the invasion of Ukraine.
Strict new laws now prohibit the spread of ‘lies’, i.e. anything that goes against the government’s claim that the war in Ukraine is a so-called ‘special military operation’ to rid Ukraine of “Nazis”.
Simply holding a sign saying ‘No War’ – as protesters do, and as Russian news producer Maria Ovsyannikova did live, on camera, on March 14 – risks a 15-year prison sentence .
It’s a violation of Russian law for police to photograph and fingerprint people detained for minor administrative offences, such as breaking public assembly rules.
But these detainees are sometimes beaten if they refuse to be photographed, according to Popova, Human Rights Watch’s Kruope and other rights watchdogs, including UK-based OpenDemocracy.
“We saw a lot of (anti-war) protesters detained, and some of them were mistreated and tortured, and from what we were told, that was after they refused to pose for a photo” , Kruope told Insider.
“A few women reported that they were abused and that the police poured water on their faces, making them look like they were about to drown, beating them, that sort of thing” , Kruope said, citing first-hand accounts received by Human Rights Watch.
In Moscow alone, 125,000 cameras
There are at least 125,000 surveillance cameras in Moscow, according to Human Rights Watch, citing the city’s own tally.
The cameras are spreading across the country, all in the interest of “public safety”, according to the organization.
The ever-present eye of the state, coupled with tough new laws against speech and assembly, had a chilling effect on protests.
There are far fewer rallies now, but not because protesters are scared, Popova points out.
Anti-war activists simply realize that they can be more useful if they remain free.
“It’s not fear,” she said. “It’s a rational decision about how best to use your voice,” she said.
“When you’re arrested, you can’t use your voice, through social media, or try to talk to your relatives and friends and recruit them to the right side,” she said.
“The best way is not to be arrested.”