- Print This Post Print This Post

by John Helmer, Moscow 

In a plan Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin initiated two years ago called “Smart City 2030”, the Russian capital has attempted to catch up with China’s cities and to London in the mobilization of electronic and digital tools for following the city’s inhabitants, enforcing the laws, and catching criminals, tax cheats, speeders —  and political protesters.

Most of these tools can be spotted fixed to lamp posts and other street furniture; some are on board drones flying in the air; some are underground at metro stations and on subway trains. Invisible is the surveillance of telephone calls and messages; social media; and internet communication.  

On the hardware and software, the equivalent of about a billion US dollars has been spent every year for the past five years by the Moscow government’s Department of Information Technology. That doesn’t count parallel spending by the municipal and federal agencies in charge of physical and financial security and public health, and by commercial organisations engaged in transportation, marketing, telecommunications, and banking.   

The introduction of the corona virus quarantine measures has accelerated the spending — and the sensitivity of most Muscovites to their privacy, and their suspicion of government officials’   motives. There have been many press reports in the city detailing the extent of the visual, audio, internet and other surveillance measures which have been installed or are planned. Opposition is growing – and if expressed in public gatherings, carefully recorded. So this month an application was filed by two Moscow political activists to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). They are asking for a ruling that the city’s facial recognition measures when used by police to monitor public meetings and demonstrations are an unlawful infringement of individual human rights under the European Convention.

 “We’ve been sold out already,” headlined Tsargrad.tv. last week.     “The electronic concentration camp is in action.”

Most Russians don’t agree. In the first national opinion poll carried out in mid-April, 75% of the population countrywide said they support the measures taken by their regional or city governments;  13% were opposed; 12% declined to answer. The residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg were almost as compliant and supportive – 73%. Also, more of them are opposed – 19%.  In late May a second poll showed that among Muscovites, 57% approved; 39% disapproved.

The BBC Russian Service published an unusually detailed report on Moscow’s electronic surveillance policies and programmes on April 10; the full report can be read (Russian only).  Forbes Russia followed on April 10. Deutsche Welle, the German state press organ, followed with a report on the application to the European Court on July 7.

These reports omit to compare Moscow and Russia to other countries around the world. Compared with them on the number of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras per head of population, Moscow ranked 29th   — just behind Baghdad, but far behind London at 3rd and Beijing at 5th. St. Petersburg placed 37th behind many Chinese cities, Singapore, Delhi, and Sydney, Australia.


The sources of the camera data for the two Russian cities were local media reports from late 2019 and early 2020.  Source: https://www.comparitech.com/

The customary justification for operation of CCTV systems around the world is that they help the police solve crimes and deter criminals. Moscow police and the federal internal affairs ministry have told the press that CCTV recordings were used to solve more than three thousand crimes last year.  

An attempt at calculating the correlation between the number of crimes and the number of cameras from city to city, between the measured crime indexes for each city and the CCTV figures demonstrated the correlation is very weak. So there must be other security and intelligence-gathering applications which are valued more highly.  Clearing winter snowfalls, unsnarling traffic jams,  responding to electricity or gas outtages, and improving responsiveness to individual calls for help are the standard reasons Moscow officials give. 


Source: https://www.comparitech.com/

Tracking of mobile telephone signals is another technology Moscow and other Russian cities have adopted; but again, they trail well behind cities abroad because the ownership of mobile and smart telephones is relatively limited – roughly the same as in Greece, South Africa, and Brazil.  Per capita income is the deciding factor.


Source:  https://www.pewresearch.org/

Source:  https://www.pewresearch.org/

Here is a tabulation of countries which have introduced mobile telephone tracking technologies for the announced purpose of tracing the contacts of individuals who test positive for the corona virus. This was published in the US earlier this month; Russia has not been included nor South Korea, which by repute is one of the leading countries in tracking and isolating Covid-19 outbreaks.


No data for South Korea and Russia. Key: yellow star=yes on the identified standard; white star= no or unknown. Source: https://www.technologyreview.com/
 For more discussion of the technology and the protection of individual privacy from state, criminal, commercial and other surveillance, read this and this.

The introduction of facial recognition into the Moscow CCTV system was studied in China in 2019, but it had been introduced much earlier, though on a smaller scale than the Chinese cities.


Source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/

Recent Russian reports claim that mismatching of face to identity in the imposition of fines for breach of Covid-19 rules has occurred in up to 20% of the recorded cases. 

A US study suggests that mismatch and error rates are dropping sharply as the technology improves. “The major result of the evaluation,” reported by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in November 2018, “is that massive gains in accuracy have been achieved in the last five years (2013-2018) and these far exceed improvements made in the prior period (2010-2013). While the industry gains are broad – at least 28 developers’ algorithms now outperform the most accurate algorithm from late 2013 – there remains a wide range of capabilities. With good quality portrait photos, the most accurate algorithms will find matching entries, when present, in galleries containing 12 million individuals, with error rates below 0.2%. The remaining errors are in large part attributable to long-run ageing and injury. However, for at least 10% of images – those with significant ageing or sub-standard quality – identification often succeeds but recognition confidence is diminished such that matches become indistinguishable from false positives, and human adjudication becomes necessary.”  

Compared with China and with Russia’s enemies, the US and UK, Moscow’s “Smart City” programme – as the surveillance technologies are collectively called since the inception of the Sobyanin plan in 2018 – is catch-up. In parallel, vocal citizen opposition on constitutional, legal and civil rights, and privacy grounds is growing; it has been amplified by the propaganda organs of the NATO states.

Left to right:   Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin at the Covid-19 data control centre in mid-March.  Right: Eduard Lysenko, head of Moscow’s Department of Information Technology.


Source: https://www.bbc.com/

According to the report by Andrei Zakharov,  in March and April the BBC Russian Service interviewed city officials and employees of IT companies, and “studied about fifty state contracts to understand how smart Moscow has become and what it is capable of as an all-seeing and all-knowing ‘brother’.” “We have always thought about convenience and security, not about control,” Alexey Chukarin, one of the creators of this system, was quoted as saying. “All the solutions which have been implemented are not ‘Big Brother’ – they are friend and helper.”  

Singapore was chosen as the role model, according to a former member of the mayor’s office. Commencing in 2014 the city state introduced an extensive network of video surveillance cameras, as well as sensors installed in all cars.

By 2018 Sobyanin had pushed Moscow ahead of other regions in the country  and level with the most advanced cities of the world, in the introduction of electronic systems for medical care, traffic control, management of resident complaints, and also the collation of different data collections into a consolidated system, allowing the creation of detailed individual profiles.


In the right corner, the running man is emitting data from his mobile telephone which when collated centrally show his location, whom he is communicating with, and what services he has been using,  from his taxi rides to his medical appointments to his passport, residential registration, marriage, property ownership, municipal tax payments, water and electricity consumption; also his record as a complainer.  Page 17 of the Smart City 2030 plan, issued by the Moscow Mayor.

In early April, the Ministry of Information Technology approved the procedure for tracking individuals testing positive for Covid-19 based on cell phone geolocation data; this expanded a practice which had been under way for several years. Since 2018, for example, when a resident of Moscow calls an ambulance from a mobile phone, the ambulance despatcher can gather the exact coordinates of the telephone call, although callers are still asked to give their address, if they can.

By mid-March, Oleg Baranov, the Moscow police chief, reported to the city Duma that the video surveillance system had helped identify more than 200 quarantine violators. By the start of the pandemic, 175,000 cameras were in operation, connected to a single data storage and processing centre. The city is planning to increase the total to 200,000, adding installations off the street and inside markets, office buildings and schools. Added to this count are mobile cameras carried by police or operated by drones; these are also included in the processing centre.  For tracking corona virus patients, doctors have been ordered to take photographs of the patient and his immediate family and feed these into the city system.

The “Smart city 2030” strategy also anticipates the testing and installation of “acoustic control” systems. These not only monitor noise and street sounds but also apply voice recognition and stress pattern software. In April of this year, the city Duma approved a statute legalising most forms of visual and audio surveillance for a five-year trial period.

 In the meantime, the city courts have rejected citizen complaints at the legality of the system. Also, the police and courts have yet to act against the leaking and theft of data which are being sold on the internet.  

In mid-April the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre  (VTsIOM) asked a national sample of Russians for a range of their views about the corona virus and their assessments of how well or poorly local, regional and national authorities had performed to deal with it. Overall, 75% of those surveyed said they supported the pandemic control measures of their region, 13% were critical. A month later, Levada reported it had found 66% approval, 32% disapproval.

VTsIOM is financially dependent on state contracts; it almost always reports results which are more supportive of the state authorities than its rival, Levada Centre. Also, VTsIOM’s telephone-calling methodology produces more conformism, less dissent than Levada’s face-to-face interview method.  However, because of the risks of Covid-19 I infection and local restrictions on movement, when Levada polled attitudes towards government handling of the pandemic between May 22 and 24,  it did so by telephone.


Source: https://wciom.ru/

When the pollsters asked if Russians believe the control measures in force are excessive, just 6% said yes; 5% of women, 7% of men.

The Levada Centre in Moscow published its poll a month later on May 26.


Source: https://www.levada.ru/

The result of the Levada sample from Moscow is dramatic. In May, two months into the city lockdown, more than one in three city residents was disapproving. Their sentiment has produced a significant push on the mayor, as well as on the federal authorities and President Vladimir Putin, to promise the relaxation of the controls.

The Communist Party has been as acquiescent as the United Russia party majorities in the federal and city parliaments, and less critical than most Russians. Its only commentary on the introduction of facial recognition cameras by the Moscow government came in a publication by the party’s television channel, Krasnaya Linia (“Red Line”) on July 23.

Source: https://www.rline.tv/

We remind you that the Moscow video surveillance system with facial recognition function, now the world’s largest, began to be created in 2017. By the beginning of 2019, about 170,000 capable of recognizing faces were working in the capital. According to Vedomosti, the facial recognition system has been criticized by human rights defenders. In early July, Moscow resident Alyona Popova, along with former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov, filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) about the use of the [facial recognition] technology during the protests in September 2019 after the Moscow city Duma elections. According to the plaintiffs, the use of this system during the rally violated the European Convention on human rights, which prescribes the protection of privacy. Together with the fact that the participants of the rally could not avoid identification, this also violated the right to freedom of assembly, they claim.”

“In May 2020, protests against racism and police brutality in the United States began. Soon after, major American companies developing facial recognition systems imposed restrictions on working with law enforcement agencies. In June, IBM announced its exit from the market of such systems, explaining its decision as part of ‘a public dialogue about whether law enforcement agencies should use facial recognition’.” After that, Amazon announced a one-year moratorium on the sale of facial recognition technologies to the police. Microsoft said it would not license them to the police on principle. NEC, Cognitec, iOmniscient and Clearview AI, on the contrary, confirmed their intention to continue delivering cognitive technologies to law enforcement agencies, CNN reported.”

The impetus for the introduction of facial recognition technology in Moscow and other Russian cities was the security requirements of the World Cup football tournament in June and July 2018. Moscow, St Petersburg and nine other cities hosted matches, and an average of almost 50,000 stadium spectators at each match. Threats of disruption and violence from the British and American secret services, and their proxies, were credible, making the counter-measures acceptable to most Russians.

Attempts by Moscow and other cities followed this year when facial recognition and other digital identification was introduced for permits to move outside during lockdowns. They were widely resisted; they also failed to work as planned.

Source: Tass in https://meduza.io/

Commented an internet protection expert Mikhail Klimarev, “instead of explaining to people that self-isolation is in their own interest, [the city government] just tries to scare them. In reality, the likelihood of getting fined in Moscow [for going out without a permit] is lower than the probability of contracting HIV.”  

The multiplication of cameras and the extension of the security operation to domestic protest gatherings in Moscow was first seen and challenged in September 2019. Vladimir Milov, a former energy official in the Russian government and for several years a member of Alexei Navalny’s campaigns, launched an unsuccessful challenge to the use of facial recognition cameras in a Moscow district court last November. Joining him was Alyona Popova, a lawyer and women’s rights advocate.   They filed at a second city district court in March of this year, and lost again.  

Left, Vladimir Milov; centre, Alyona Popova; right, Damir Gainutdinov of the Agora Group.  

“In the past,” argues Damir Gainutdinov, a lawyer with the Agora rights defence group in Moscow, the expansion of surveillance “was justified by the fight against terrorism, extremism and the activity of foreign intelligence services. In the end, it was presented as an exceptional measure or a one-time event. The coronavirus has dramatically changed the situation.”

VTsIOM has reported the majority of Russians accepts the new digital control measures for the corona virus emergency. “For the strengthening of the means of control over infected people (video cameras, etc.), 70% are ready to support; for the introduction of curfews – 66%; the introduction of a system of special passes for moving around the city – 64%; the ban on entering and leaving the city/district – 61%.” The majority, however, is opposed to fines and prosecutions for violators. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to VTsIOM, the opposition to these sanctions was 61% and 65%, respectively.

Russians don’t accept either the punitiveness of the Covid-19 controls or the enlargement of police powers beyond the pandemic. They are also concerned by file leaks, breaches of privacy, misuse of individual information, and commercial exploitation of personal data. Entitled “The Surveillance Pandemic”, an 18-page report written by Gainutdinov was issued by Agora earlier this month.  Facial recognition is one of several technologies whose application is analysed in six chapters covering Moscow and other regions of the country.  

The report concludes with these recommendations: “We recognize that the unprecedented global crisis facing humanity, requires the adoption of some emergency measures measures, including those that may justify certain restrictions on rights and freedoms of the individual. The authorities of all countries have a duty to resist the pandemic, and society has a right to expect governments to overcome its economic consequences and stop the spread of the virus. At the same time, we are convinced that any measures taken must be legal, effective and proportionate, and that  restriction of rights and freedoms should be temporary and subject to public control.”

“We call on the Russian authorities to refrain from excessive and increasing interference with the right to privacy and respect for private property and life, as well as to follow the norms of international law. We recommend following the following principles:
1) For surveillance to be established it must be accessible and understandable, formulated normative acts adopted by the authorized bodies within their competence.
2) The use of any surveillance technology must be voluntary and optional. Forced surveillance and collecting information about the private life of specific individuals should be authorized by a reasoned court order and be limited in time, volume, and method of implementation.
3) Mass, indiscriminate surveillance is in any case illegal and should not be applied, because it does not allow conduct a case-by-case analysis for the necessity and proportionality of the measures applied.
4) Any data collected must be securely protected and be used only by authorized persons. The State should ensure the responsibility of officials responsible for the disclosure of personal data, as well as [ensure] fair compensation for victims.
5) In the case of processing depersonalized data, the appropriate state body or authorized person must have the capacity and readiness to confirm the non-individuality of the data at any time.
6) Data should be collected to the minimum extent possible and solely for the protection of public health. They should not be the object of sale (including in an impersonal form), nor be used for other, including punitive purposes.
7) All collected data must be securely deleted after achieving the goals of processing them in each case. Including data obtained for monitoring compliance with the mandatory quarantine by specific individuals must be destroyed after termination of the quarantine.
8) Surveillance may not be discriminatory and be determined by race, nationality, citizenship, or country of origin.
9) The state has an obligation to ensure the transparency of all measures and actions taken, creating conditions for an independent public audit in terms of their impact on human rights.”

These are the same standards recommended and published in April in the US by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) . 

Leave a Reply