Trailing only China in the widespread use across the nation of security cameras equipped with facial recognition technology.
Over the course of the past two years, Russian authorities have significantly expanded the use of facial recognition cameras, increasing the number of regions where they're used from five to 62, a twelve-fold increase. This has effectively created a nationwide surveillance system for monitoring citizens, and sharing information among regional authorities.
This is now one of the largest video surveillance systems in the world, second only to China, allowing law enforcement to locate individuals not only within their own region, but also across Russia.
There is an ongoing process of connecting cameras across various regions into a single network, and a unified data storage center is already operational, Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer at Roskomsvoboda, a Russian NGO that supports digital rights of Internet users. “If all data is stored on the same servers, we are talking about trans-regional processing. This means that even if a person moves to another region, they can still be found there.”
The development of the facial recognition system began in 2017 when the city of Moscow announced the launch of one of the world’s largest facial recognition video surveillance networks, with the capital's Department of Information Technologies touting the 160,000 cameras installed across the city, including more than 3,000 of them connected to the facial recognition system. The reason given for this massive expansion was the crack down on crime, though even then there was suspicion that it was also designed to target government opponents.
During this time, cameras were gradually installed in Moscow's residential building entrances, public places, and the metro on a trial basis. In 2019, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) reported that, over the course of two years, the technology had helped apprehend over 100 wanted individuals in Moscow.
Human rights on the line
Yet we know that surveillance cameras have been one of the key components in the Russian government’s arsenal to suppress opposition to its war in Ukraine. It is illegal to engage in "public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation" and to deliberately and publicly spread false information about the Russian armed forces. Such actions are punishable by fines and prison sentences ranging from three to 15 years.
In July this year, however, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Russia's use of facial recognition technology to arrest a protester on the Moscow subway violated his human rights.
"The use of facial-recognition technology in this case ha[s] been incompatible with the ideals and values of a democratic society governed by the rule of law," the court said in its ruling.
At a cafe in Moscow which uses a biometric facial recognition system for payments.
Nikolay Glukhin, a Russian citizen, was traveling on Moscow's underground in August 2019 carrying a life-sized cardboard figure of the dissident Konstantin Kotov, who was imprisoned for taking part in unsanctioned rallies. The cutout of Kotov was holding a banner that said "I’m facing up to five years … for peaceful protests." Glukhin was arrested several days after his solo protest while traveling on the metro, and charged with failing to notify the authorities of his demonstration.
The system logs nearly every single citizen in the country.
"The processing of Mr. Glukhin’s personal data in the context of his peaceful demonstration, which had not caused any danger to public order or safety, had been particularly intrusive," the court's decision noted in July.
For comparison, by 2020, China's video surveillance system, the largest of its kind in the world, connected 450 million cameras. The system logs nearly every single citizen in the country. A database leak in 2019 gave a glimpse into how pervasive China's surveillance tools are were, with more than 6.8 million records from a single day, taken from cameras positioned around hotels, parks, tourism spots and mosques, logging details on people as young as 9 days old.