Technology and Democracy: Opinion

Does facial recognition tech in Ukraine’s war bring killer robots nearer?

Clearview AI is offering its controversial tech to Ukraine for identifying enemy soldiers – while autonomous killing machines are on the rise

Darian Meacham Martin Gak
30 March 2022, 12.00am

Facing risks

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Technology that can recognise the faces of enemy fighters is the latest thing to be deployed to the war theatre of Ukraine. This military use of artificial intelligence has all the markings of a further dystopian turn to what is already a brutal conflict.

The US company Clearview AI has offered the Ukrainian government free use of its controversial facial recognition technology. It offered to uncover infiltrators – including Russian military personnel – combat misinformation, identify the dead and reunite refugees with their families.

To date, media reports and statements from Ukrainian government officials have claimed that the use of Clearview’s tools has been limited to identifying dead Russian soldiers in order to inform their families as a courtesy. The Ukrainian military is also reportedly using Clearview to identify its own casualties.

This contribution to the Ukrainian war effort should also afford the company a baptism of fire for its most important product. Battlefield deployment will offer the company the ultimate stress test and yield valuable data, instantly turning Clearview AI into a defence contractor – potentially a major one – and the tool into military technology.

If the technology can be used to identify live as well as dead enemy soldiers, it could also be incorporated into systems that use automated decision-making to direct lethal force. This is not a remote possibility. Last year, the UN reported that an autonomous drone had killed people in Libya in 2020, and there are unconfirmed reports of autonomous weapons already being used in the Ukrainian theatre.

Our concern is that hope that Ukraine will emerge victorious from what is a murderous war of aggression may cloud vision and judgement concerning the dangerous precedent set by the battlefield testing and refinement of facial-recognition technology, which could in the near future be integrated into autonomous killing machines.

To be clear, this use is outside the remit of Clearview’s current support for the Ukrainian military; and to our knowledge Clearview has never expressed any intention for its technology to be used in such a manner. Nonetheless, we think there is real reason for concern when it comes to military and civilian use of privately owned facial-recognition technologies.

Clearview insists that its tool should complement and not replace human decision-making. A good sentiment but a quaint one

The promise of facial recognition in law enforcement and on the battlefield is to increase precision, lifting the proverbial fog of war with automated precise targeting, improving the efficiency of lethal force while sparing the lives of the ‘innocent’.

But these systems bring their own problems. Misrecognition is an obvious one, and it remains a serious concern, including when identifying dead or wounded soldiers. Just as serious, though, is that lifting one fog makes another roll in. We worry that for the sake of efficiency, battlefield decisions with lethal consequences are likely to be increasingly ‘blackboxed’ – taken by a machine whose working and decisions are opaque even to its operator. If autonomous weapons systems incorporated privately owned technologies and databases, these decisions would inevitably be made, in part, by proprietary algorithms owned by the company.

Clearview rightly insists that its tool should complement and not replace human decision-making. The company’s CEO also said in a statement shared with openDemocracy that everyone who has access to its technology “is trained on how to use it safely and responsibly”. A good sentiment but a quaint one. Prudence and safeguards such as this are bound to be quickly abandoned in the heat of battle.

Clearview’s systems are already used by police and private security operations – they are common in US police departments, for instance. Criticism of such use has largely focused on bias and possible misidentification of targets, as well as over-reliance on the algorithm to make identifications – but the risk also runs the other way.

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The more precise the tool actually is, the more likely it will be incorporated into autonomous weapons systems that can be turned not only on invading armies but also on political opponents, members of specific ethnic groups, and so on. If anything, improving the reliability of the technology makes it all the more sinister and dangerous. This doesn’t just apply to privately owned technology, but also to efforts by states such as China to develop facial recognition tools for security use.

Outside combat, too, the use of facial recognition AI in the Ukrainian war carries significant risks. When facial recognition is used in the EU for border control and migration purposes – and it is, widely – it is public authorities that are collecting the sensitive biomarker data essential to facial recognition, the data subject knows that it is happening and EU law strictly regulates the process. Clearview, by contrast, has already repeatedly fallen foul of the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and has been heavily sanctioned by data security agencies in Italy and France.

If privately owned facial recognition technologies are used to identify Ukrainian citizens within the EU, or in border zones, to offer them some form of protective status, a grey area would be established between military and civilian use within the EU itself. Any such facial recognition system would have to be used on civilian populations within the EU. A company like Clearview could promise to keep its civil and military databases separate, but this would need further regulation – and even then would pose the question as to how a single company can be entrusted with civil data which it can easily repurpose for military use. That is in fact what Clearview is already offering the Ukrainian government: it is building its military frontline recognition operation on civil data harvested from Russian social media records.

Then there is the question of state power. Once out of the box, facial recognition may prove simply too tempting for European security agencies to put back. This has already been reported in the US where the members of the New York Police Department are reported to have used Clearview’s tool to circumvent data protection and privacy rules within the department and to have installed Clearview’s app on private devices in violation of NYPD policy.

This is a particular risk with relation to the roll-out and testing in Ukraine. If Ukrainian accession to the European Union is fast-tracked, as many are arguing it should be, it will carry into the EU the use of Clearview’s AI as an established practice for military and potentially civilian use, both initially conceived without malice or intention of misuse, but setting what we think is a worrying precedent.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is extraordinary in its magnitude and brutality. But throwing caution to the wind is not a legitimate doctrine for the laws of war or the rules of engagement; this is particularly so when it comes to potent new technology. The defence of Ukraine may well involve tools and methods that, if normalised, will ultimately undermine the peace and security of European citizens at home and on future fronts. EU politicians should be wary of this. The EU must use whatever tools are at its disposal to bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine and to Russian aggression, but it must do so ensuring the rule of law and the protection of citizens.

openDemocracy asked Clearview to comment on specific questions raised in the article, but it has not done so.

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