According to a report published last week by US publication Business Insider, a number of Western tech companies are users of FindFace, a controversial facial recognition technology developed by Russian startup NtechLab, reports Adrien Henni for East West Digital News.
FindFace matches faces to social media accounts, regardless of privacy rights, among other facial recognition capabilities. His 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 has seen a list of nearly 1,100 FindFace licensees from some 60 countries, which it claims was shared by an anonymous source. Organizations on the list include Interpol, the Brazilian police and the Royal Thai Army, as well as the FSB and other Russian organizations.
Also on the list are major Western companies like 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 had tested NtechLab’s technology but did not continue beyond the trial period.
Intel and Nokia have denied ever using FindFace, while Bosch, Honeywell and SpaceX did not respond to questions from Business Insider.
In an exchange with Business Insider, NTechLab admitted that the leaked list included “some current customers” as well as organizations that had tried its technology without buying it. The company said it would investigate the leak and take appropriate action.
This Moscow-based startup has had an eventful history. Shortly after its inception in 2015, NtechLab won a top-tier world championship in facial recognition, beating more than 100 competitors, including Google.
Shortly after this triumph, the first facial recognition app developed by the startup, FindFace, sparked controversy over user privacy. The app automatically compared the image with people’s social media pages on Vkontakte, Russia’s leading social network.
In order to make it easier to make new friends, the app was also used for more sensitive purposes. While it helped authorities in St. Petersburg identify arsonists, it was also used to identify and harass young women. Critics of FindFace went so far as to state that the app “could, in theory, be used by a serial killer or debt collector trying to hunt down a debtor.”
Among the company’s early customers were the police, military, intelligence services, ministries, and large corporations in Russia and elsewhere. NTechLab solutions have been used to support the city of Moscow’s mass video surveillance system, which was recently challenged in court by civil rights activists.
Start of Big Brother?
Address the risk of misuse of your technology. NtechLab claims to keep all customer data private and says it has no control over how its software is used. He strives to “create a process that can comply 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 use our technology for bad purposes.”
NtechLab says 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 have been used in video surveillance systems in major cities to counter the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The company says this has helped local authorities “monitor compliance with the quarantine regime, monitor large gatherings of people, and also implement facial identification access control, despite the presence of a protective mask.”
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 its investment activity in Russia last spring.)
Among the early shareholders of NtechLab is Impulse VC, which is reportedly affiliated with Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. This fund led a $1.5 million round raised by the startup in 2017.
NTechLab did not respond to a previous inquiry from EWDN.
This article first appeared in East-West Digital News (EWDN), a partner publication of bne IntelliNews.