The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia’s surveillance state still doesn’t match China. But Putin is racing to catch up.

A woman walks past a surveillance camera and a mosaic depicting the Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin at a Metro station in Moscow on March 10. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Russian authorities are ramping up the use of facial recognition technology to track opposition protesters to their homes and arrest them — a powerful new Kremlin tool to crush opposition.

But when state security agents are suspected of murders or attacks on journalists and opposition activists, surveillance cameras have at times been switched off or “malfunction.”

And the system is so leaky that surveillance data on individuals can be bought for a small sum on Russia’s notorious black market in data, along with all kinds of other personal information. There is even a name for the clandestine cyber bazaar: probiv.

China leads the world in rolling out a vast network of facial recognition technology, including a system to track and repress its Uyghur minority. But Putin’s Russia is racing to catch up.

Russian firms such as NtechLab produce some of the world’s most sophisticated facial recognition software as authorities grapple with counterpunches by the opposition, including using social media to expose Russia’s kleptocracy, such as extravagances by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political allies.

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Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the facial recognition system — rolled out in Moscow en masse in January 2020 and expanded to at least 10 other Russian cities — is now used in 70 percent of crime investigations. Moscow has more than 189,000 cameras with facial recognition capabilities, as well as more than 12,300 on subway cars in Moscow’s Metro.

“It is being used more and more against protesters and activists,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer with Roskomsvoboda, a Moscow-based digital rights organization. “All these cameras scoop up the faces of people who go to a protest and then the information stays in the system.”

During protests in January and February over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Roskomsvoboda received more than a dozen reports of protesters arrested at home or in the subway, suggesting tracking by surveillance systems, Darbinyan said.

'Digital concentration camp'

Surveillance and facial recognition is increasingly used globally for law enforcement, raising alarm among civil liberties groups about privacy rights.

The FBI used facial recognition, surveillance video and other means to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol. In Britain, South Wales police lost a landmark case last year when an appeals court ruled that the technology violated a right to privacy and laws on equality.

But it’s a very different story in authoritarian states.

“Instead of the system being used for the benefit of the city, it is being used as a tool of total surveillance and total control of citizens,” said Sergei Abanichev, a protester who was jailed after being arrested using facial recognition.

He threw an empty paper cup in the direction of police at a protest in the summer of 2019, although he says he had no intention of causing harm. A week later, nine special forces police banged on the door of his apartment. He was charged with rioting and mass disorder. He served a month before the charges were dropped.

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The ordeal was enough to deter him from taking part in this year’s protests, he said. Yet on Jan. 31, when more than 4,500 people were arrested during protests, police pounced on him in the Metro. They told him the Metro facial recognition system had activated a “high alert,” he said. He was interrogated for hours but eventually freed.

Spreading fear and deterring activism may be just the point for authorities, Darbinyan said.

“If somebody knows that he or she can be tracked down, they may change their behavior,” he said. “They may decide not to go to a rally, not to participate in a protest or maybe even not to go to the mosque for prayer, because they know that they can be tracked down.”

On Jan. 31, activist Kamil Galeyev was detained at his home three hours before a major protest started. The detention, he said, was based on photos of him through facial recognition from a Jan. 23 demonstration. He was jailed for 10 days.

Another activist, Mikhail Shulman, was picked up inside the Metro on Jan. 31 through facial recognition. It made him feel as if he lived in a “digital concentration camp,” he wrote in an article on Roskomsvoboda’s website.

Black market data

The facial recognition surveillance data goes into a central database, the Integrated Center for Data Processing and Storage, accessible by law enforcement and some bureaucrats. But corrupt officials sell data on Russia’s thriving “probiv” black market: flight records, cellphone records and other data.

It is used by Russian investigative journalists researching alleged abuses by officials, as well as criminals tracking potential targets and snoops checking up on rivals, spouses, employees or business partners.

“Often, it’s not the government or the authorities who have the access to the data, but criminals,” said Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Society, a nongovernmental organization exposing abuses of the Internet by Russian authorities.

Authorities have begun to crack down on the probiv market, arresting a police officer for trading in data and investigating another.

Anna Kuznetsova, of Roskomsvoboda, saw several ads for facial recognition data on Telegram last year and paid $200 for access to data from 79 Moscow cameras, providing information on her daily routine, work and home addresses and her routes.

Journalist Andrei Kaganskih, of MBKh Media, bought five days’ access to data about himself from a number of cameras and an 80-page report tracking his face over one month. He reported that 30,000 rubles (about $400) could buy sweeping live access to all system cameras.

But the cameras are not pointed at everyone.

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation analyzed an online Moscow city map of facial recognition cameras on buildings and found none on blocks where senior officials lived. The U.S. State Department sanctioned Russian officials and organizations last month over Russia’s near-fatal poisoning of Navalny last August.

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The poisoning exposed how the state security services constantly surveil journalists and opposition figures — but switch off CCTV cameras when moving in for the attack.

Konstantin Kudryavtsev, a member of a clandestine biological and chemical weapons unit in Russia’s FSB security agency, confirmed the poisoning in a December phone call to Navalny, who posed as a senior security aide. When Navalny asked whether there was any chance someone on the poisoning team could have been caught on video, Kudryavtsev told him surveillance cameras were switched off in such operations.

He said: “Now cameras are everywhere, but even so when there are cameras we turn them off, you understand, right?” He added that “we always cut off any possibility of being captured. Maximum conspiracy — this is of utmost importance. No one should be seen.”

In another case, the Britain-based investigative online media outlet Bellingcat used flight and phone records from Russia’s data black market to find that Kudryavtsev and two members of the same FSB unit were in southern Russia around the time of the suspicious death of Timur Kuashev, a 26-year-old journalist and anti-torture activist in Nalchik in July 2014. Bellingcat published a letter from local traffic police to investigators stating that all the video cameras near the theater malfunctioned that night.

Kuashev’s body, with bruises on his face and the marks of an injection in his armpit, was found on a road to a forest nine miles from his home. The death was ruled to be heart failure.

The Internet Protection Society reported “a worrying new trend” after public access to real-time CCTV footage was switched off in six major Russian cities during the January protests. Klimarev said it seemed police wanted to prevent oversight of their actions to control the protests. 

Human rights lawyer Kirill Koroteyev said there were no effective checks on how law enforcement used facial recognition and surveillance cameras.

“The system,” he said, “is designed so that there is no way to question how the system operates.”

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