The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia’s fight against the coronavirus may give Putin even more power

Surveillance technology serves a double purpose in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting. (Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia, with more than 400,000 citizens reportedly infected, now has the third-highest tally of coronaviruses cases in the world. The resulting turmoil has prompted questions about the current regime’s stability. Votes on a bundle of constitutional amendments allowing President Vladimir Putin to run for two more terms — originally set for April 22 — were postponed. Putin has announced new economic packages aimed at addressing rising unemployment and lost wages as the economy continues to suffer. Even the typically elaborate and patriotism-filled celebrations of World War II Victory Day were toned down.

As the pandemic ravages the country, the Russian government is turning to sophisticated surveillance technologies and tools, ostensibly in the name of containment: It is using facial recognition and smartphone apps, and even monitoring Internet content and social media posts. These kinds of tools have been deployed in many countries, with ranging degrees of oversight, to contain the virus.

Those who take a Manichaean view of Russian tech policy (and, perhaps, of Russian politics in general) might toss pandemic-surveillance measures into one of two boxes: On the one hand, they might accept that the measures represent a genuine attempt to crack down on the virus’s spread. On the other, they might insist they are an excuse to further state monitoring of the populace. In reality, they’re both. The technology could save many lives. But the Kremlin typically uses any excuse available to extend state surveillance powers — and there’s no sign that it’s approaching the current crisis differently.

Russia is employing a wide spectrum of tools and technologies for pandemic containment. Moscow, the locus of the worst outbreak, is widely using facial recognition in public spaces to monitor citizens’ movements. By mid-March, police were reporting that the city’s 178,000 facial-recognition cameras had already caught hundreds violating quarantine. While some of the hardware was present previously, its use has been rapidly amplified.

Surveillance doesn’t stop there. Russians suspected of infection must install tracking software on their phones. Several regions of the country have also made any citizen wanting to move about in public configure digital passes, such as QR codes on their devices. Some officials had even initially discussed data disclosure: Karelia, a region in northwestern Russia, planned to publish the addresses of confirmed coronavirus patients so residents would know which homes to avoid.

As with all of Russia’s surveillance measures, nothing is purely digital; physical enforcement is indispensable, as well. During the pandemic, this has manifested in phone calls, fines, house visits and even arrests of noncompliant individuals.

In several cases, the measures find the Russian government using tech to genuinely limit the spread of coronavirus. For instance, authorities have used the facial-recognition cameras to physically track down people violating quarantine, like a woman who, upon returning from China in February, proceeded to immediately meet with friends. One Moscow professor claimed she was fined for not installing tracking software on her smartphone. Checkpoints and barricades in public spaces are used to verify digital passes that similarly can limit movement.

Infections are rising, and, from the Kremlin’s perspective, while that isn’t good for the domestic economy or for Putin’s image, the government’s strategies can, of course, still serve to meet real public health needs. After all, technology, as other countries have ascertained, may be a way to help contain the virus’s spread.

But it is also reason for the state to expand power. The maxim “never let a crisis go to waste” is certainly applicable here, as it’s a philosophy to which Putin has long subscribed. Numerous experts have already pointed this out with regard to the pandemic, from the former chief executive of Ukraine’s Kyiv Post to analysts at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Just because Putin may be withdrawing from the public eye — an attempt to self-insulate from any political blowback resulting from leadership failures — doesn’t mean efforts to expand the state’s digital control are withdrawing in tandem.

Facial recognition, for example, had long been controversial, the subject of fights in Russia’s capital leading up to the pandemic. In May 2019, officials disclosed plans to roll out facial recognition citywide. Pushback from citizens, including privacy activists, followed. Unsurprisingly but absurdly, a court subsequently ruled in early March that the city’s facial-recognition systems don’t violate expectations of privacy.

Dictators are using the coronavirus to strengthen their grip on power

Since then, the pandemic has only added fuel to Moscow’s push for facial-recognition surveillance. Many more cameras have been installed during the pandemic, and in line with plans developed before the covid-19 outbreak, the city will install even more — but now with the justification that doing so has public health benefits. Moscow is also, during the pandemic, probably watching many more people than it might have otherwise through these cameras, potentially forcing more urgent state investment in monitoring capabilities on the human side.

Online content takedowns have also been an important flash point for the Kremlin’s dual approach. There has been misleading information spread about the pandemic in Russia, such as false information — which the Russian government itself had propagated last year — linking 5G technology to dangerous health effects, a conspiracy theory that allegedly led to arson at one cellular base station. Cracking down on such misinformation might actually make people safer. But there have also been aggressive efforts to censor and suppress information that challenges official government infection counts.

Notably, at the end of March, Russia’s parliament approved bigger fines and longer prison sentences for those disseminating false information with what the government deems dire effects. Roskomnadzor, the Internet and media regulator, is ordering media platforms to remove “false information” about the virus from their platforms. Just a few weeks ago, the Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the New York Times and the Financial Times for publishing “disinformation” on infection counts, which is to say numbers that contradicted the Russian state line. Even as local officials downplay the pandemic’s severity, Kremlin officials are also requiring online platforms to censor infection counts that contradict state lines and news that reflects poorly on the preparedness of the Russian hospital system.

What happens next for Russia, as the pandemic spreads and as technologies are increasingly deployed to halt it, is a complicated picture, and one that relies on speculation. Putin isn’t exactly embodying the strong image he likes to project domestically, and the Russian populace is taking notice. This also comes as Putin was in the process of further consolidating power for when his time as president comes to an end. But what’s clear is that Russia’s pandemic surveillance is both coronavirus containment and state power expansion at once — and if the Russian state continues to struggle to adequately contain covid-19, the Kremlin will make even greater use of the latter to maintain political control.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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