Tech

How an American gig work platform was accused of working for Russia

Louise Matsakis
WATCH LIVE
Barricades are set up in front of Independence Monument and soldiers patrol as air raid sirens heard during amid Russian attacks in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 03, 2022.
Aytac Unal/ | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

For nearly a decade, Premise, a San Francisco-based crowdsourcing firm, has helped corporations and government agencies hire gig workers on the ground in far-flung regions, who provide information such as the availability of vaccines in Afghanistan or the cost of yogurt in Colombia. It recently tasked Ukrainians with a more delicate job: taking photographs of the damage caused by explosives and identifying nearby medical facilities.

When Russia began invading Ukraine last week, Premise was accused by Ukrainian authorities of collecting that data on behalf of the Russian government. By Friday night, the company had temporarily frozen its activities in the country "out of an abundance of caution." Premise CEO Maury Blackman said that Google, whose parent company was one of the company's early investors, removed its app in Ukraine for several days before restoring it Tuesday.

Premise said the accusations that it was working for the Russian military or government were "unequivocally false." The company hired Lanny Davis, a Washington political operative and a Clinton administration lawyer, to help manage crisis communications. Davis said the company's clients in Ukraine include the U.S. government and a European government interested in understanding the country's current infrastructure. 

Davis, who previously represented former President Donald Trump's prior personal attorney Michael Cohen, said Premise has spoken multiple times with FBI officials over the last few days. The company contacted the FBI for help clearing its name with Google and the armed forces of Ukraine, which released a statement Friday alleging the company was working for the Kremlin. 

The FBI declined to comment. Google did not respond to requests for comment.

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"All Premise and our entire community of employees and stakeholders want to do is help the Ukrainian people at this moment of peril against the Russian invaders," Blackman said in a statement.

Experts say that the confusion over Premise in Ukraine highlights the risks that come with relying on gig work platforms to collect sensitive information, especially in situations like a war. 

"All these different platforms, they're trying to create very efficient, low-friction ways to hire contingent labor on demand," said Matthew Lease, an information studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who researches crowdsourcing platforms. "The very things that make it so efficient provide a lack of context and inability to potentially report issues or ask questions."

Premise resumed its work in Ukraine on Wednesday, "with the purpose of providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian citizens," the company said in a press release. Since 2017, Premise has received at least $5 million as part of U.S. military projects, including with the Army and the Air Force, according to an investigation published last year by The Wall Street Journal. 

Susan Gough, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense, said she couldn't comment on the department's work with specific companies. "DoD intelligence components purchase and use commercially available information in accordance with applicable legal and regulatory authorities to conduct and support authorized DoD missions," she said in an email.

On the ground

Oleksandr Kuts, 31, an information technology worker living in Kyiv, said he first became aware of Premise last week, after spotting painted symbols around the capital that resembled targets or bull's-eyes.

​​Ukravtodor, the Ukrainian agency in charge of maintaining roads, warned Thursday that the markings were part of a system used by the Russian military and instructed civilians to report information about them to the police.

After downloading the Premise app, Kuts and his co-workers saw it was asking people in Ukraine to share data they speculated could be related to the symbols. 

"There were tasks like find the nearest hospitals, find the nearest bridge, find the nearest holes after bombings," he said. 

Kuts quickly put together a guide alerting Ukrainians about the app, which he said was shared widely by his friends and contacts online. "Some of our other friends started sharing it, I think some Ukrainian journalists started to share it. It was like a waterfall," he said, referring to how quickly the information spread.

In Ukraine, where people are already on high alert amid the invasion, Kuts said that Premise's secrecy about its clients was not helpful.

 "The civilians are very strong. They capture all suspicious information, all suspicious people," he said. Because he and his colleagues couldn't figure out who Premise was working on behalf of, they assumed it was Russia.

Davis denied that Premise had anything to do with the symbols that have appeared in parts of Ukraine. "It's 100 percent false," he said.

A growing market

Launched in 2013, Premise is part of the billion-dollar crowdsourcing industry, which hires workers, frequently in developing countries, to complete piecemeal tasks, such as answering surveys, taking pictures or labeling images for artificial intelligence systems. The data is shared with corporations and governments, and has also frequently been used for self-driving cars and other technology.

Crowdsourcing platforms typically don't inform workers who the end customer is, said Mary L. Gray, the co-author of "Ghost Work," a book about the people who work for crowdsourcing apps.

"Because the tasks are distributed globally and digitally, there is no way to really understand who's doing this work and the work conditions under which they do it," she said. "That's a feature, not a bug of platform economies. They assume workers shouldn't care and that's dehumanizing and, ultimately, dangerous for the end consumer of whatever a data worker touches." Gray and other experts said the industry should be subject to more regulation.

Julian Posada, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto who studies the human labor behind crowdsourcing platforms, said it was understandable that Ukrainians may have assumed Russia was working with Premise. A number of similar platforms are based in Russia, he said, including Toloka, which was launched by the Russian tech giant Yandex. 

"Gig economy platforms are not new for Russians," he said.

Even when a conflict isn't occurring, experts say crowdsourcing workers often have questions about how their labor may ultimately be used. As part of his research, Posada said he heard from a worker in Latin America, who was asked to identify roofs in satellite images, who worried the data would be incorporated into automated weapons systems.

But workers often have little power or ability to bring up these types of concerns, especially if they need the income they earn from crowdsourcing to survive, according to Posada. 

"Many workers are in very precarious situations," he said. "The power differentials are extreme."