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California-based app Premise battles accusations of helping Russian military

Bay Area firm Premise offered to pay Ukrainians for photos of medical facilities or damage from explosions, according to some Twitter users.

Premise, a San Francisco-based tech company that pays users around the world to share market research and intelligence information with companies and governments, said it suspended its activities in Ukraine on Friday “out of an abundance of caution” after Ukrainian officials accused it of assisting Russia.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine alleged in a Facebook post that enemies were using Premise’s smartphone app to collect data in the western city of Stryi and other parts of the country for the Kremlin.

Premise CEO Maury Blackman said in a statement on Friday that the accusations were “unequivocally false” and that the company does not work for the Russian military or government. “Our company and our team worldwide strongly support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people defending themselves against this illegal act of aggression by Russia,” he said.

Premise did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a separate news release also published on Friday, Blackman said that “the public statement of the Ukraine Defense Ministry that has gotten circulation is incorrect.”

Prior to the Russian invasion, Blackman said Premise and its customers surveyed people in Ukraine and asked them to take pictures in order to “understand citizens’ perceptions.” He said findings from those reports had been published publicly.

But Premise’s recent activities in Ukraine seem to have been different, according to several Twitter users appearing to be located in the country. They shared screenshots they said were from the Premise app offering Ukrainians jobs paying 30 cents for photos of damage caused by explosions and $3.25 for the location of nearby medical facilities. One Twitter user said they could not immediately comment because the area where they were was under attack. A second Twitter user did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

NBC News couldn’t determine from the photos which of Premise’s clients may have paid for the tasks. The company has previously said that it doesn’t “reveal the end customer” to its users. The Wall Street Journal reported that Premise was working in Ukraine on behalf of Western democracies that wanted to understand the country’s infrastructure. The U.S. Department of Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Launched in 2013, Premise is one of a number of research firms that reward people, frequently in developing countries, for completing small piecemeal tasks, such as answering surveys, taking pictures, and reporting the prices of goods in nearby stores. The data helps corporations understand local markets and has also frequently been used to train artificial intelligence systems.

Mary L. Gray, the co-author of “Ghost Work,” a book about the people who work for piecework apps like Premise, said on Twitter that it’s important to consider how they are treated.

“If we want healthy information, we need to care about the work conditions of anyone who could be asked to perform a task mediated by platforms,” she wrote.

In recent years, Premise has begun working with the U.S. military and foreign governments, according to reporting by The Wall Street Journal published in June. The company said in its release that it works in more than 125 countries and in 37 languages to find “data for every decision.”