Russia under President Vladimir Putin has pioneered authoritarian tech: Last year, the Kremlin leader approved measures that would enable the creation of a “sovereign” Russian internet, able to be firewalled from the rest of the world.
The Covid-19 pandemic is now giving Russian authorities an opportunity to test new powers and technology, and the country’s privacy and free-speech advocates worry the government is building sweeping new surveillance capabilities.
Perhaps the most well-publicized tech tool in Russia’s arsenal for fighting coronavirus is Moscow’s massive facial-recognition system. Rolled out earlier this year, the surveillance system had originally prompted an unusual public backlash, with privacy advocates filing lawsuits over unlawful surveillance.
Coronavirus, however, has given an unexpected public-relations boost to the system.
Last week, Moscow police claimed to have caught and fined 200 people who violated quarantine and self-isolation using facial recognition and a 170,000-camera system. According to a Russian media report some of the alleged violators who were fined had been outside for less than half a minute before they were picked up by a camera.
“We want there to be even more cameras so that that there is no dark corner or side street left,” Oleg Baranov, Moscow’s police chief, said in a recent briefing, adding that the service is currently working to install an additional 9,000 cameras.
The system has also been used to analyze the social networks of those who have or are suspected of having coronavirus. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin described in his official blog how municipal authorities tracked a Chinese woman who flew to the city from Beijing back in February.
While a test eventually came back negative, Sobyanin said the authorities located the taxi driver who took the woman home from the airport, a friend she met outside her apartment block in violation of the quarantine, and collected data on all 600 people living in her building.
And then there’s the use of geolocation to track coronavirus carriers. Epidemiologists see tracking and data-crunching as one important tool for tracking and localizing outbreaks, but Russia has taken a distinctive approach. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin earlier this week ordered Russia’s Ministry of Communications to roll out a tracking system based on “the geolocation data from the mobile providers for a specific person” by the end of this week.
In other words, the data hoovered up by the system will not be anonymous: According to a description in the government decree, information gathered under the tracking system will be used to send texts to those who have come into contact with a coronavirus carrier, and to notify regional authorities so they can put individuals into quarantine.
Such measures have prompted little public debate. And Russia is far from being the only country in the world that increased surveillance capabilities to curb the spread of the virus.
In Israel, the Shin Bet security service has shifted its powerful surveillance program to retrace the movements of coronavirus patients or suspected carriers. The mechanism is similar to that used in Russia — phone and credit card data are used for mapping, and health officials must then alert and quarantine people who were within 2 meters, for 10 minutes or more, of someone infected with the virus, according to the country’s Health Ministry.
The ministry said in a statement the information will only be used by its specialists and deleted after 60 days. But rights groups have filed a petition against it to the High Court of Justice, which warned it will shut the program down unless more oversight is in place. On Thursday, Shin Bet said in a statement that it helped the health authorities to identify and isolate more than 500 residents who were found to be sick with the coronavirus.
In South Korea, the government used data from credit card transactions, phone geolocation and surveillance footage to give detailed information on coronavirus patients, without identifying them by name, according to a government website. The result was a map where people can see if they were in close proximity to a coronavirus carrier. Detailed histories led to some patients being doxxed — having their personal information outed without consent — and authorities decided to scale down the data-sharing policies.
Mobile carriers in the European Union are sharing data with health authorities in Italy, Germany and Austria to help monitor how people comply with social distancing, Reuters reported. The US government is looking into using anonymous data gleaned by tech giants for similar purposes, according to The Washington Post. But in Russia, privacy advocates worry that the country’s use of facial recognition had already been a legal gray zone; stricter measures amid coronavirus could allow the state to exert even more control over its citizens once the epidemic is over.
“The difference lies with the countries that have a higher culture of privacy and a significant limitation of access and use of this data,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer with Roskomsvoboda, a non-government organization that tracks online freedoms in Russia. “The scariest thing is that the epidemic will end someday, but these measures I’m sure will stay.”
Meanwhile, Russia plans to expand its existing systems as the number of coronavirus cases grows. But Moscow’s system of Big Brother surveillance is far from perfect. Outside Russia’s capital, facial recognition is usually limited to airports and railway stations, but the government says it is preparing to tap into other surveillance tools in an effort to further map out the virus patterns.