Western tech majors have tested or used controversial Russian facial recognition technology

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According to a report published last week by the American publication Business Insider, a series of Western technology companies are using FindFace, a controversial facial recognition technology developed by the Russian startup NtechLab.

FindFace matches faces to social media accounts regardless of privacy rights, among other facial recognition capabilities. Its approach is similar to that developed by US startup Clearview AI, which was recently fined in the UK for illegally creating a facial recognition database.

Business Insider saw a list of FindFace licensees from around 60 countries, which it said was shared by an anonymous source. Among the 1,100 organizations on the list are Interpol, the Brazilian police and the Royal Thai Army as well as the FSB and other Russian organizations.

Major Western companies are also found there, including Bosch, Dell, Honeywell, Intel, Nokia, Philip Morris, SpaceX and others.

However, not all of these organizations are active users of the technology. In response to inquiries from Business Insider, Philip Morris, CasinoSoft, and MutualLink said they tested NtechLab’s technology but did not make it past the trial period.

Intel and Nokia denied ever using FindFace, while Bosch, Honeywell and SpaceX did not respond to questions from Business Insider.

In an exchange with Business Insider, NTechLab conceded that the leaked list included “a few current customers” as well as organizations that had tested its technology but not purchased it. The company said it would investigate the leak and take appropriate action.

Turbulent history

This Moscow-based startup has had a checkered history. Shortly after its creation in 2015, NtechLab won one of the best facial recognition championships in the world, bypassing more than 100 competitors including Google.

Shortly after this triumph, the first facial recognition app developed by the startup sparked controversy over user privacy. The app, dubbed “FindFace,” automatically linked the image to users’ social media pages on Vkontakte, Russia’s leading social network.

Intended to make it easier to meet new friends, the app has also been used for more sensitive purposes. While it helped authorities in St. Petersburg identify arsonists, it was also used to identify and harass young women. FindFace’s reviewers went so far as to claim that the app “could, in theory, be used by a serial killer or collector trying to track down a debtor”.

Among the first users of NtechLab’s solutions are the Turkish police, military, intelligence services, ministries and large companies. These solutions are now being used to support the city of Moscow’s mass video surveillance system, which was recently challenged in court by civil rights activists.

These customers operate in fields as diverse as the security, retail, finance, entertainment and hospitality industries. Among the startup’s products is a biometric identification system that “ensures public safety in dozens of cities around the world.”

Starting Big Brother?

Facing the risk of misuse of its technology. NtechLab claims to keep all customer data private and says it has no control over how its software is used. It strives to “create a process that can be compliant with local laws,” co-founder Artem Kukharenko told TechCrunch in a 2020 interview.

“We vet our partners so we can trust them, and we know they won’t misuse our technology.”

NtechLab claims that its solutions were actively used in several cities during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and “contributed to the arrest of more than 100 people on the federal wanted list”.

In 2020, NtechLab solutions were used in video surveillance systems in large cities to counter the spread of Covid-19. The company says this has helped local authorities “monitor compliance with the quarantine regime, monitor large gatherings of people and also implement access control with facial identification, despite the presence of a face mask. protect”.

In September 2020, the company received 1 billion rubles (about $13 million at the exchange rate at the time) from RDIF and Mubadala, the Russian and Emirati sovereign wealth funds, respectively. (Mubadala suspended investment activities in Russia last spring.)

Among NtechLab’s first shareholders is Impulse VC, which is believed to be affiliated with Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. This fund led to a fundraising of $1.5 million by the startup in 2017.

NTechLab Diod does not respond to a previous EWDN request.

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