Unmasking Russia's Presence in Ukraine—With Science

Can biometrics establish a link between Moscow and the shadowy gunmen in eastern Ukraine?
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An armed man gestures in front of the police headquarters in Slaviansk, Ukraine, on April 12. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Every day, the scene playing out along the Ukrainian border with Russia seems like an act of costumed theater. Pro-Russian protesters wearing balaclavas, or ski masks, armed with military-grade weapons, attempt to take over government buildings by force. The question of who is behind the masks has risen to a level of critical international importance. If the protesters are affiliated with the Russian military, Vladimir Putin’s government is in violation of international treaties and laws. It’s a nearly impossible challenge, but one that the United States military, within its own sphere of operations, is also trying to solve.

Many Western observers now take as fact that groups raiding buildings in places like Donetsk and Kharkiv are, in fact, Russian and not simply Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Consider the recent example of Kharkiv, where pro-Russian protesters first attempted to occupy the city’s opera theater before realizing that it wasn’t City Hall. “Presumably, the local citizens of Kharkiv, if they wanted to take over City Hall, they would have gotten the right building to begin with,” said Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Masked faces on the streets of Donetsk represent the latest example of stealth-invasion, a tactic that is here to stay, according to Steven Metz, writing for World Politics Review. Metz heralds it as the dawn for what he calls unrestricted warfare, defined roughly by its originators as a state of war where “boundaries between the battlefield and what is not the battlefield, between what is a weapon and what is not, between soldier and noncombatant, between state and non-state or supra-state” effectively disappear. It’s a system of war for the future, and one for which the U.S., says Metz, is unprepared. “The United States,” he said, “wants its conflicts and security problems to remain tidily restricted. Its strength is greatest when there is no political ambiguity or ethical confusion, and when partners jump on board. This is precisely why America’s adversaries will not fight this way.”

The only effective strategy in the fight against unrestricted war may be unmasking the combatants. “The sheer fact of wearing a balaclava mask, in the current situation, means that a person is foreign because there is no one to hide your identity from in Ukraine,” said Yegor Anchishkin, a Ukrainian programmer and entrepreneur, and one of the founders of Viewdle, a facial-recognition technology company purchased by Google in 2012.

But how do you identify masked individuals? Iris scanning is a popular method for biometric identity protection in security environments. But these sorts of scans require a near-infrared camera. Extremely sophisticated iris-recognition scanning equipment can work at ranges of 10 feet, but most of the lesser systems that would be available to the Ukrainian government need to be within ranges closer to 3 or 4 feet, according to experts.

Reading entire faces isn’t much easier. Even when the subject of a facial-recognition search is not wearing a mask, getting a positive identification from a photo at a distance remains a difficult problem technologically. Yes, Facebook’s DeepFace program can match faces with up to 97-percent accuracy, and significant progress has been made getting around the classic challenge of age, position, illumination, and expression that have long hobbled facial-recognition programs. But Ukraine isn’t Facebook and the problem, says Anchishkin, is having an understanding of who the people in the photos might be, absent records to match the people in the photographs.

Anchishkin said that while the Ukrainian government, specifically the Security Service of Ukraine, or SSU, maintains a database of photos of Ukrainian citizens who have applied for passports, this sort of analysis is only good for ruling people out as potential Russian military. “This kind of negative matching is hard to achieve with high confidence,” he said. The SSU would not confirm or deny the existence of a database of photos of Ukrainian citizens.

Russian soldiers stand guard near the Ukrainian Navy's command ship Slavutych at the Crimean port of Sevastopol. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Anti-Russian grassroots organizations such as the website Ukraine Investigation have employed a crowd-sourcing technique similar to the Reddit thread "findbostonbombers" that sprouted up after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

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Patrick Tucker is the technology editor of Defense One and the author of the book, The Naked Future: What Happens In a World That Anticipates Your Every Move.

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