The real price of the free facial recognition tech for Ukraine

Caitlin Thompson


Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has accepted an offer from an American surveillance company Clearview AI to use their facial recognition software for free. But can you fight totalitarianism by adopting its infrastructure of control? That’s the question on the minds of privacy advocates who are warning against a possible rushed launch of an already controversial software in the middle of a war zone, making future abuse harder to track and easier to implement.

“The use of facial recognition and online surveillance in a warzone sets a dangerous precedent,” said Lucie Audibert, legal officer at Privacy International. “The deployment of any technology in a war context has to be extremely carefully thought through, as the implications are much more difficult to assess than in peaceful times.”

It’s not clear how Clearview AI software may be used in Ukraine, but possible uses include identifying Russian assailants or vetting people at checkpoints. 

The controversial reputation of Clearview AI adds to the skepticism. The facial recognition company has ended up in hot water in a number of countries — the U.K., Italy, Canada just to name a few — for the ways the company gathered facial data from users without permission and offered its facial recognition to law enforcement without transparency.

“Any ‘safeguards’ that Clearview promises or that we could envisage for the use of this tool will just vanish when faced with the lawlessness and unpredictability of war,” Audibert warned.

Tech advocates we have been speaking to are also flagging up a possible trend of tech  companies exploiting the war in Ukraine to sanitize their image and build their reputations. We have already reported on one example of this: Nick Clegg, President of Global Affairs at Meta said that Russia’s ban on Facebook was a loss to freedom of speech. “Suddenly tech giants are positioning themselves as defenders of freedoms they have been helping to erode,” Nobel Peace prize winning journalist Maria Ressa told my colleague Natalia Antelava.


Fifteen million people in Ghana will be unable to access communication and financial services as the government’s arbitrary deadline for linking biometric ID cards approaches.

Africa is home to about half of the world’s one billion people who live without any form of identification, which leaves them unable to access basic government services. To rectify the problem, the World Bank Group set a global goal to get everyone an ID by 2030.

In order to do this, governments across Africa are turning to national biometric ID systems.

It doesn’t always go smoothly. Last October, a court ruled Kenya’s ID scheme was illegal without further data protections. People in Cameroon have had to wait years before receiving their cards.

Ghana’s woes illustrate the challenges for countries implementing national biometric ID systems on a tight timeframe. If people are cut off from services before everyone is registered for a national ID, millions of people will inevitably be left behind.

Time is running out. As of March 31, all SIM cards that have not been linked to the Ghana Card will be deactivated. By July 1, the Ghana Card will be required for all financial transactions.

For Teki Akuetteh, the executive director of the Africa Digital Rights’ Hub, it’s not the digitization that’s the problem. Ghana has multiple legacy ID systems that are inefficient and confusing. Uniting everyone under one ID could help, if done properly.

The problem is politics and the rapid pace of the implementation.

“National IDs have become a political game,” said Akuetteh. Every administration wants credit for creating an efficient national ID system. But to date, these projects haven’t been sustainable.

“Because of the need to make political campaigns out of the successes of these projects, we fail to take our time to implement them in a way that will be more beneficial to the ordinary person,” said Akuetteh. 

This explains the rush to arbitrary deadlines. Of the country’s nearly 31 million people, only about 13 million have received their Ghana Card.

Expediting the process of linking the ID to vital services will exclude people.

It’s a particular problem for people in rural areas. The government’s strategy for registering people has been to set up pop-up centers in communities. It’s been quite successful. But imagine your card has a mistake or you couldn’t get to the pop-up center in time. The cost to travel to another registration center can be prohibitively high, further marginalizing already disadvantaged groups.

“One of the reasons that we’ve advocated for these IDs has been inclusion,” Akuetteh said, explaining that the Ghana Card could help people get the services they’re entitled to. “But at the same time, what we see is that a lot of these people that matter, who may benefit the most from these ideas, are also being excluded.”

Right now, she argues, the focus should be on registering as many people as possible. 

“I think that we have to organically allow these things to grow so that we can make little mistakes and correct the mistakes.”


Russia’s communications watchdog has come down hard on VPNs. In the past month alone, Rozkomnadzor has forced Google to delist over 36,000 URLs that link to VPNs, according to data from Surfshark, a cybersecurity company in Lithuania. The crackdown was particularly fierce in the second week of the war in Ukraine after Russia announced a block on Western media, Facebook and Twitter, and VPN sales spiked 3,500% compared to levels before the February 24 invasion. 

Telegram whiplash in Brazil. On Friday, the Supreme Court ordered a block on Telegram. By Sunday, the decision was reversed. After months of failing to respond to court orders to suspend accounts spreading disinformation, the company finally caught up. Telegram, which is particularly popular among supporters of the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, will now mark misinformation as inaccurate and have employees monitor the most popular channels. A bit late, considering the role disinformation has played in Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic, but at least they’re implementing the changes ahead of elections in October.

Myanmar’s junta has green-lit the sale of telecoms company Telenor Myanmar. The buyer’s majority shareholder has close links to the military, and the sale could expose sensitive data to the military and put journalists and human rights activists in danger. It looks like the creative use of European data protection laws to encourage Telenor to leave the country responsibly won’t be successful.


  • In the U.S., the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project has just released a toolkit for local elected officials and privacy activists that outlines lessons learned in pushing back against expanding government surveillance tech in policing, education and transit sectors.
  • In San Francisco, the system that the city uses to track the inventory of available homes for people experiencing homelessness is broken. Actually, it never worked. And while you’re on the subject of how tech is failing to fix the homelessness crisis, check out my piece on the algorithm that SF uses to decide if someone qualifies for housing.