How Russia Tracks, Censors And Controls Its Citizens

How Russia Tracks, Censors And Controls Its Citizens

TALLINN, ESTONIA — When Yekaterina Maksimova can’t be late somewhere, the journalist and activist avoids taking the Moscow Metro, even though it’s probably the most efficient route. This is because in the last year she has been detained five times thanks to a ubiquitous facial recognition security camera system. She recounts that the police told her that the cameras “reacted” to her passing, although they often did not seem to understand her motive and would let her go after a few hours. “It seems that I am in some kind of database,” says Maksimova, who had been arrested twice before: in 2019 after participating in a demonstration in Moscow and a year later for her environmental activism. For many Russians like her, it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid scrutiny from the authorities, with the government actively monitoring social media accounts and using security cameras against activists. Even a platform once praised by users for facilitating bureaucratic tasks is being used as a control tool: the authorities plan to use it to notify the draft, thus thwarting a popular tactic of evading documentation in person. . Activists argue that under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has harnessed digital technology to track, censor and control the population, establishing what some call a “cyber gulag,” an obscure reference to the labor camps where it was held. to political prisoners in Soviet times. This is new territory, even for a nation with a long history of spying on its citizens. “The Kremlin has become the de facto beneficiary of digitization and is using every opportunity for state propaganda, for surveillance of the population, for breaking the anonymity of internet users,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, legal head of Roskomsvoboda. , a Russian internet freedom group that the Kremlin considers a “foreign agent.” Increased censorship The Kremlin’s apparent indifference to digital surveillance appeared to change after mass protests in 2011 and 2012, which were coordinated online, prompted authorities to tighten controls. Some regulations allowed them to block web pages and others forced mobile phone and internet operators to store call and message logs, to share the information with security services if necessary. The authorities lobbied companies like Google, Apple and Facebook to keep user data on Russian servers to no avail and announced plans to create a “sovereign internet” that could be isolated from the rest of the world if necessary. At the time, many experts called these efforts futile, and some still seem ineffective. The Russian measures may seem like no more than a fence compared to China’s great firewall, but the Kremlin’s online crackdown has gained momentum. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, online censorship and legal prosecution for posts and comments on social networks took off in such a way that they broke all existing records. According to Net Freedoms, a leading internet rights group, more than 610,000 websites were blocked or removed by authorities in 2022, the highest annual record in 15 years, and 779 people were charged for comments and posts, another record. An important factor was the law adopted a week after the invasion that criminalizes anti-war sentiment, Net Freedoms president Damir Gainutdinov said. In addition, it prohibits the “spreading of false information” or “discrediting” the military, so it is used against those who publicly oppose the war. Human Rights Watch cited another 2022 law that allows authorities to “extrajudicially shut down a media outlet and block online content for spreading ‘false information’ about the conduct of the Russian Armed Forces or other state agencies abroad or for propagating so-called to sanction Russia. Artificial Intelligence Rights advocates are concerned that online censorship is about to be dramatically expanded through artificial intelligence systems combing networks and websites for content deemed illegal. Government media regulator Roskomnadzor announced in February the launch of Oculus, an AI system that looks for prohibited content in online photos and videos, and can analyze more than 200,000 images a day, compared with 200 for humans. Two other similar systems that are under development will focus on texts. Activists say it is hard to know if the new systems are working and how effective they are. Darbinyan describes them as “a horrible thing”, leading to “more censorship”, amid a complete lack of transparency about their operation and regulation. “Now it is normal to laugh at the Russians, to say that they have old weapons and that they don’t know how to fight, but the Kremlin is very good at disinformation campaigns and there are high-level computer experts who create extremely effective and very dangerous products,” he said. Government regulator Roskomnadzor did not respond to requests for comment. Cameras on a pole in Moscow, Russia, on February 22, 2020. Facial recognition Between 2017 and 2018, the Moscow authorities installed a system of cameras on the streets enabled with facial recognition technology. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, authorities were able to locate and fine those who violated quarantines. That same year, the Russian media reported that schools would also have these systems. Vedomosti said they will not be connected to the facial recognition system nicknamed “Orwell,” after the British author of the dystopian novel “1984” and his “Big Brother,” the all-seeing character. When protests over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny began in 2021, the system was used to track down and arrest attendees, sometimes weeks later. After Putin announced a partial mobilization of men to fight in Ukraine in September last year, he apparently helped authorities catch the evaders. Maksimova, the activist who is repeatedly stopped on the subway, sued to challenge the arrests but lost. The authorities claimed that, since she had been detained before, the police had the right to hold her for an “informal conversation”, in which the officers explain her “moral and legal responsibilities” to a citizen. Maksimova maintains that the agents refused to explain why she was listed in her surveillance databases, calling it a state secret. She and her lawyer appealed the court ruling. On the streets of Moscow there are 250,000 surveillance cameras with such software: at the entrance to residential buildings, on public transport and on the streets, Darbinyan said. St. Petersburg and other big cities like Novosibirsk and Kazan have similar systems, he added. She believes that the authorities want to set up “a network of cameras throughout the country. It seems like a daunting task, but there are possibilities and funds”. Total digital surveillance In November, Putin ordered the government to create an online registry of people fit for military service after efforts to mobilize 300,000 men to fight in Ukraine revealed a huge mess in enlistment records. The registry, which was promised to be ready in the fall, will collect all kinds of data, “from walk-in clinics to courthouses, tax offices and election commissions,” political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya said in a recent commentary for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Stanovaya believes these restrictions could be extended to other aspects of life in Russia as the government “builds a state system of all-out digital surveillance, coercion and punishment.” For example, a law passed in December requires taxi companies to share their databases with the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB, giving it access to travel dates, route and payment. “The cyber gulag, which was actively talked about during the pandemic, is now taking real shape,” Stanovaya wrote. Connect with the ! Subscribe to our channel Youtube and activate notifications, or follow us on social networks: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.



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