Ukraine and Russia have both weaponized facial recognition — in very different ways

Ukraine and Russia have both weaponized facial recognition — in very different ways
Police rush to arrest a protester holding a sign reading "No War" on March 13, in Manezhnaya Square outside the Kremlin in Moscow.Contributor/Getty Images
  • Russia uses surveillance to hunt down anti-war protesters, rights activists say.
  • Those who refuse to be photographed are held illegally and sometimes tortured, they say.

In Moscow's public squares, surveillance cameras stare down at any who dare gather in the Kremlin's shadow, or below the century-old yellow bricks of the FSB intelligence service.

And at Ukraine's checkpoints and morgues, still more surveillance cameras are whirring into use, scanning for Russian operatives and identifying the thousands left dead.

Facial recognition technology is being used in starkly different ways on either side of Russia's monthlong war on Ukraine.

Last week, Ukraine began tapping into the trove of faces kept by the controversial facial recognition platform Clearview AI, the company confirmed to Insider.

Clearview, which has been criticized for its scraping of social media images and its use by US law enforcement, is donating free access to its database, which includes two million images collected from the Russian social media service VKontakte.


As first reported by Reuters, Ukraine's defense ministry is using the database to check for Russian infiltrators at checkpoints. Other uses include combatting misinformation, identifying the dead and reuniting families torn apart by war.

"Ukraine officials have expressed appreciation for the use of the technology," CEO Hoan Ton-That told Insider on Monday. "Several agencies have used it and already have had successes."

But in Russia, facial recognition technology is put to a more nefarious use, human rights activists there say: silencing dissent.

Ukraine and Russia have both weaponized facial recognition — in very different ways
Moscow-based human rights activist Alyona Popova.Alyona Popova

"There is no safe place," Moscow-based anti-war and women's rights activist Alyona Popova told Insider.

"We can be followed, we can be arrested, no matter where we are," said the outspoken activist against Russia's widespread surveillance of protesters.


"It is a place of total surveillance, where the government collects our personal data, our biometrics, our faces, and our messages when we are online."

Harvesting faces, thousands at a time

Popova's awakening came in September, 2019, when she found herself eye-to-eye with a government camera as she joined a peaceful anti-government rally in Moscow.

City officials had approved the rally, held to protest prior police brutality against demonstrators.

But in Sakharov Square that day, Popova and her fellow rally-goers were forced to go through metal detectors. Each was equiped with an eye-level surveillance camera.

Popova knew that Moscow police had been illegally photographing individual demonstrators since at least 2017; she believes the so-called "Safe City" system was used in her own arrest for unsanctioned picketing outside the Russian parliament building in 2018.


But the 2019 rally was the first known mass harvesting of the faces of Russian dissent.

"Now, they are collecting this data just because you attend a protest or rally," she told Insider.

"They have data now on tens of thousands of protesters," in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and Russia's own privacy and assembly laws, said Popova.

Ukraine and Russia have both weaponized facial recognition — in very different ways
A surveillance camera keeps watchful eye over Moscow's Sakharov SquareAlyona Popova

She and now-exiled opposition leader Vladimir Milov soon lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights; that lawsuit is still pending.

Once officials know who you are, "They can arrest you that day, or days, even months later," said Popova.


"And they know where you are" even while on the move. "They have facial recognition in the subway station," she said.

Police openly brag to detainees that they were caught using facial recognition, the human rights organization OVD-Info reports.

It was a camera in Moscow's metro that led Russian police to human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina earlier this month, on her 80th birthday.

Ukraine and Russia have both weaponized facial recognition — in very different ways
Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina speaks to journalists in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Calls had been spreading on Telegram at the time for an anti-war protest in Manezhnaya Square; Gannushkina happened to be leaving a metro station nearby.

"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 out a message while in custody, according to the Russian independent news outlet Mediazona and the 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 both publications.

"As the police explained, the cameras recognized my physiognomy," the elderly mathmetician added.

On March 15, Moscow began forcing people to go maskless in the subways, Mediazona reported. Popova believes the move is designed to help the surveillance cameras better record and recognize wanted faces.

Kremlin's war on "lies"

Nearly 15,000 people across Russia have been detained since the start of the Ukraine invasion.


Strict new laws now outlaw the spreading of "lies," meaning anything counter to the government claim that the war in Ukraine is a so-called "special military operation" to rid Ukraine of "Nazis."

Merely 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 term.

It is a violation of Russian law for police to photograph and fingerprint people held on minor administrative offenses, such as violating the rules of gathering in public.

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 the UK-based OpenDemocracy.

"We've seen a lot of (anti-war) protesters detained, and some of them were ill-treated and tortured, and according to what we were told that was after their refusal to pose for a photo," Kruope told Insider.


"A few women reported they were ill-treated, and that the police poured water on their faces, making them feel like they were about to drown, beating them, that kind 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, Human Rights Watch says, citing the city's own count.

The cameras are spreading across the country, all in the interest of "public safety," the organization says.

The ever-present eye of the state, coupled with the tough new laws against speech and assembly, have had a chilling effect on demonstrations.

There are far fewer gatherings now, but not because protesters are afraid, Popova stresses.


Anti-war activists simply realize that they can be of greater use if they remain free.

"It is not fear," she said. "It is a rational decision on how to best use your voice," she said.

"When you are arrested you cannot use your voice, via social media, or try to speak to your relatives and friends and recruit them to the right side," she said.

"The best way is to not be arrested."