The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, has teamed up with its Emirati peer Mubadala to invest “more than 1 billion rubles” (approximately $13 million at the current exchange rate) in Russian face recognition startup NtechLab.
Touting itself as “the global leader in computer vision systems based on artificial intelligence and neural networks,” NtechLab provides solutions for “highly accurate and fast” recognition of faces, silhouettes and actions on video, along with related data analysis.
This Moscow-based startup has had an eventful history. Shortly after its inception in 2015, NtechLab won a top world championship in face recognition, bypassing more than 100 competitors including Google.
Soon after this triumph, the first face recognition app developed by the startup sparked controversies over user privacy. The app, dubbed ‘FindFace,’ automatically matched the image to people’s social media pages on Vkontakte, Russia’s leading social network. Meant to facilitate making new friends, the app was also used for more sensitive purposes. While it helped St. Petersburg authorities identify pyromaniacs, it was also used to identify and harass young women. FindFace critics went as far as to assert that the app “could, in theory, be used by a serial killer or a collector trying to hunt down a debtor.”
Among the first users of NtechLab’s solutions were the Turkish police, the military, intelligence services, ministries and large corporations. These solutions are now used to support Moscow City’s mass video surveillance system, which was recently challenged in court by civil rights activists.
NtechLab now claims 30 large clients in 15 countries including in Russia and neighbouring countries, the Middle East, Latin America, Southeast Asia and Europe.
These clients operate in such various fields as security, retail, finance, entertainment and hospitality industries. Among the startup’s products is a biometric identification systems that “ensures public safety in dozens of cities around the world.”
Big Brother startup?
Addressing 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 in compliance with local laws,” co-founder Artem Kukharenko told TechCrunch.
“We vet our partners so we can trust them, and we know that they will not 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 persons on the federal wanted persons list.”
In 2020, NtechLab’s solutions have been used in video surveillance systems in major 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 protective mask.”
As reported by TechCrunch, the company broke even last year with revenue reaching $8 million, three times the number from the previous year.
Among NtechLab’s shareholders Impulse VC, which is reportedly affiliated to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. This fund led a $1.5 million round raised by the startup in 2017.