Premise, a crowdsourcing company based in San Francisco, has been helping corporations and government agencies to hire gig workers in remote regions. These workers provide information, such as the availability or cost of yogurt in Colombia, for nearly a decade. Recently, it assigned Ukrainians a more difficult job: taking photos of explosive damage and identifying nearby medical facilities.
Premise was charged by Ukrainian authorities with collecting the data for Russia's invasion of Ukraine last week. Premise had temporarily halted its activities in Ukraine by Friday night. Maury Blackman, CEO of Premise, stated that Google, whose parent company was among the early investors in the company, had removed its app from Ukraine for several days before restoring the app Tuesday.
Premise claimed that the claims it was working with the Russian military or government were "unambiguously false." Lanny Davis, a Washington political operator and Clinton administration lawyer was hired by the company to manage crisis communications. Davis stated that the company's clients in Ukraine are the U.S government and an European government interested in understanding Ukraine's current infrastructure.
Premise spoke multiple times over the past few days with FBI officials, according to Davis, who was previously President Donald Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen. The FBI was contacted by the company to help clear its name with Google, the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other sources. A statement Friday claimed that the company was working for Putin.
The FBI declined comment. Google didn't respond to our requests for comment.
Blackman stated in a statement that "All Premise" and the entire community of employees, stakeholders and stakeholders wanted to help the Ukrainian people in this time of peril against Russian invaders.
Experts believe that Premise in Ukraine confusion highlights the risks of relying upon gig work platforms to collect sensitive data, particularly in war situations.
Matthew Lease, an information studies professor at Texas A&M who studies crowdsourcing platforms, said that all these platforms are trying to make it very efficient and low-friction to hire contingent labor on the demand. It is the lack of context that makes it so efficient. This means you can't possibly report problems or ask questions.
Premise's work in Ukraine was resumed on Wednesday by the company in a press . According to an investigation published last years by The Wall Street Journal, Premise has received at most $5 million in U.S. military projects.
Susan Gough, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense said that she could not comment on specific companies' work. She stated in an email that DoD intelligence components buy and use commercially-available information in compliance with applicable legal and regulatory authorities in order to support authorized DoD missions.
At the ground
Oleksandr Kuts (31-year-old information technology worker who lives in Kyiv) said that Premise was first discovered by him after he spotted painted symbols all over the capital that looked like targets or bull's eyes.
Ukravtodor (the Ukrainian agency responsible for maintaining roads) warned that the markings were part a Russian military system and asked civilians to report any information to the police.
Kuts and his colleagues downloaded the Premise app. They saw that it asked people in Ukraine for data, which they thought might be related to the symbols.
He said, "There were tasks such as finding the nearest hospitals, bridges, and finding the closest holes after bombings."
Kuts quickly created a guide to alert Ukrainians about the app. He said that it was widely shared by his friends online. It was shared by some of our friends, and I believe that it was also shared by some Ukrainian journalists. He described how fast the information spread like a waterfall.
Kuts stated that Premise's secrecy regarding its clients was detrimental to Ukraine, which is already on high alert due to the invasion.
"The civilians have a strong arm. He said that they capture all suspicious information and all suspicious persons. He and his colleagues couldn’t identify who Premise was working for, so they assumed it to be Russia.
Davis denied that Premise was involved in the symbols that were seen in Ukraine. He said, "It is 100 percent false."
A rapidly growing market
Premise was launched in 2013 as part of the billion dollar crowdsourcing industry. Premise hires workers in developing countries to do small tasks such as answering surveys or taking photos or labeling images for artificial Intelligence systems. This data is shared with governments and corporations, and used frequently for self driving cars and other technology.
Mary L. Gray, coauthor of Ghost Work, a book about people who work with crowdsourcing platforms, stated that Crowdsourcing platforms don't usually inform workers who the end customers are.
She stated that it is difficult to know who is doing the work and what the conditions are. Platform economies are a feature and not a problem. They assume workers shouldn’t care, which is dehumanizing and ultimately dangerous for the end consumers of any data that a worker touches." Gray and other experts suggested that the industry needs to be subjected to more regulation.
Julian Posada is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto. He studies the human labor behind crowdsourcing platform. He said that a number of similar platforms, such as Toloka, are located in Russia. It was launched by Yandex, the Russian tech giant.
He said that Russians are familiar with gig economy platforms.
Experts say that even when there is no conflict, crowdsourcing workers are often concerned about how their labor will be used. Posada revealed that he was contacted by a worker from Latin America who asked him to identify roofs using satellite images. He was concerned about the possibility of automated weapons systems being incorporated into his data.
According to Posada, workers are often unable to raise these kinds of concerns, particularly if they depend on the crowdsourcing income to survive.
He said that many workers are in extremely precarious positions. "The power differentials in the workplace are extremely high."