People on Red Square in Moscow. Illustrative photo.
Moscow – When Russian journalist and activist Yekaterina Maksimova can't afford to be late, she avoids taking the Moscow Metro, even though it would probably be the fastest. As the AP wrote, the reason is that in the last year alone, she has been detained there five times due to ubiquitous security cameras with a facial recognition system. The police always told her that the cameras were “reacting” to her, although they often didn't seem to understand why. And after a few hours they let her go.
“It looks like I'm in some kind of database,” said Maksimova, who has been detained twice in the past: in 2019 after participating in a demonstration in Moscow and in 2020 for her environmental activism.
For many Russians like her, it is becoming increasingly difficult to evade the authorities' scrutiny. The government also actively monitors accounts on social networks and often uses surveillance cameras in the case of activists. Even the Internet platform, which was once praised by users for its easy navigation when solving bureaucratic tasks, is now used as a tool of state control. Authorities plan to use it to serve military summonses, thwarting a popular tactic among draft evaders of trying not to pick up recruitment documents in person.
According to human rights defenders, Russia under President Vladimir Putin is using digital technology to monitor, censor and control the population. It is emerging as what some call a “cyber gulag”, which refers to the labor camps in which political prisoners were kept during the Soviet Union.
But now it is something new, even for a country with a long history spying on its citizens. “The Kremlin is taking advantage of digitization and trying to use every opportunity for state propaganda, to track people and to expose anonymous internet users,” said Sarkis Darbinyan of the Roskomsvoboda group, which fights against internet restrictions and has been branded a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin. .
The Kremlin's apparent indifference to digital surveillance appears to have changed after mass protests in 2011 and 2012 were coordinated over the Internet. The Russian authorities subsequently tightened their control over the Internet.
Some regulations allowed them to block websites, others allowed mobile operators and Internet providers to keep records of calls and messages and share everything with security forces if necessary. The authorities have also pressured companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook to store user data on Russian servers, so far to no avail. They also announced plans to build a “sovereign internet” that would be cut off from the outside world if necessary.
Many experts at the time called these efforts futile and some even ineffective. However, the Kremlin's interventions in the Internet environment gradually gained strength. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, internet censorship and prosecutions of social media posts and comments soared to record highs.
According to Net Freedoms, an internet rights group, authorities blocked or removed more than 610,000 websites in 2022, the most in a single year in the past 15 years. 779 people then faced criminal prosecution for comments and posts on the Internet, which is also a record number.
Stricter laws adopted in 2014 focused precisely on users of social networks and their expressions on the Internet. Hundreds of people have been investigated for various posts, likes and shares. Most of them were users of the popular Russian social network VKontakte, which is said to be cooperating with the authorities.
Subsequently, the authorities focused on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram. About a week after the invasion, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were just blocked in Russia, and users of these platforms often began to be investigated.
Sixty-five-year-old Marina Novikova was convicted this month in the Siberian city of Seversk for “spreading false information” about the military in her anti-war Telegram posts. She was fined $12,400. Last week, the Moscow court sent opposition activist Mikhail Kriger to prison for seven years. He earned the hate speech charge for a 2020 Facebook post in which he wrote that President Vladimir Putin should be hanged, according to prosecutors. Well-known blogger Nika Bělocerkevská, who lives in France, then received nine years in absentia for her posts about the war published on Instagram, in which, according to the authorities, she spreads lies about the army.
Human rights defenders now fear that internet censorship will become even more widespread thanks to artificial intelligence systems capable of monitoring social media and websites for what they say is illegal content.
This February, media market regulator Roskomnadzor announced the launch of Oculus, an artificial intelligence system that looks for prohibited content in photos and videos on the Internet and can analyze more than 200,000 images per day, while a human can analyze only about 200. Two more systems in the pipeline artificial intelligence will then search the text materials.
The authorities are probably also working on the development of applications that can collect information from social networks, messengers and closed Internet communities, think Belarusian hackers from the Cyber Partisans group. “Now it is common to mock the Russians, saying that they have old weapons and do not know how to fight, but the Kremlin is very good at disinformation campaigns and has top IT experts at its disposal who create extremely effective and very dangerous products,” said the coordinator of the hacking group Juliana Šemetovecová.
From 2017 to 2018, the Moscow authorities introduced a system of street cameras with facial recognition technology. During the covid-19 pandemic in 2020, they were thus able to track down and fine those who leave their homes and thus violate the announced curfews.
In the same year, Russian media reported that even schools would be equipped with cameras. The Russian newspaper Vedomosti wrote at the time that they would be connected to a facial recognition system dubbed Orwell after the British writer George Orwell, author of the famous novel 1984. In it, Orwell describes the life of ordinary people in a totalitarian tyranny ruled by Big Brother.
When protests broke out in 2021 following the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the system was used to track down and detain those who took part in the protests. After Putin announced a partial mobilization in September 2022 to support what Moscow says is a special military operation in Ukraine, the system helped find draft evaders.
In one case, for example, they were stopped in the Moscow subway a man who did not respond to the call for mobilization. The police then told him that it was the facial recognition system that alerted them. It was described to the AP by his wife, who did not want her name published for security reasons.
Yekaterina Maksimov, an activist who was repeatedly detained while traveling by subway, complained about her arrests, but was unsuccessful. Authorities said that since she had been arrested before, police had the right to detain her even for a casual interview. As Maksimova reported, officials refused to explain to her why she was in their surveillance databases, calling it a state secret. She and her lawyer appealed against the court's decision.
There are 250,000 surveillance cameras in Moscow, at the entrance of residential buildings, in public transport and on the streets, Sarkis Darbinyan said. Similar systems also operate in St. Petersburg and other large cities, such as Novosibirsk and Kazan.
According to Russian political scientist Tatyana Stanovajova, the government is “building a state system of total digital surveillance, coercion and punishment”. For example, in December one of the laws ordered taxi companies to share their databases with the FSB, the successor secret service to the Soviet secret police, the KGB. The FSB thus gained access to passenger data, their routes and payments. “The cybernetic gulag, which was actively discussed during the pandemic, is now taking on a real form,” Stanovajová concluded.