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Russia: AI and hi-tech surveillance to fight the Covid-19 epidemic amidst fears of rights violations

Russia has started employing advanced facial-recognition technologies, artificial intelligence and video surveillance in its struggle against the coronavirus pandemic. A new so-called coronavirus information centre is pulling together high-tech resources, including surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence, to monitor social media for disinformation about the spread of the disease, properly enforce quarantines, and identify empty supermarket shelves.

“This system is unique in the world,” Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin told President Vladimir Putin of the information centre.

The Covid-19 pandemic is now giving Russian authorities an opportunity to test new powers and technology, and the country’s privacy and free-speech advocates worry the government is building sweeping new surveillance capabilities.

An excuse to extend surveillance

Moscow’s officials are forging ahead with installing one of the world’s biggest surveillance camera systems equipped with facial recognition technology, despite protests from activists. In Moscow, a network of 100,000 cameras have been equipped with facial recognition technology. The system is ostensibly to help in the fight against COVID-19 as facial recognition cameras are being used to ensure that everyone placed under self-quarantine stays off the streets.

On 18th March, Moscow’s police chief, Oleg Baranov, claimed that the surveillance system has already identified 200 people violating the rules of their quarantine. A 14-day self-quarantine is required for people returning to Moscow from all foreign countries, who have been in contact with those infected, or who show mild symptoms. The rules affect thousands of people.

“We want there to be even more cameras so that there is no dark corner or side street left,” Oleg Baranov, Moscow’s police chief, said in a recent briefing, adding that the service is currently working to install an additional 9,000 cameras.

At the start of this year the Moscow city government formally announced the beginning of the capital’s “Safe City” facial recognition surveillance programme, the culmination of a long-term Russian government investment plan in the artificial intelligence sector. Under Safe City, cameras installed in key public places including the metro, apartment building entrances and train stations scan crowds against a database of wanted individuals. When resemblances are detected, the police are notified.

With trials ongoing since 2018 and reportedly almost 200,000 cameras connected to the system, this was only the first stage in the development of Russia’s facial recognition surveillance architecture.

A strong tradition of mathematical education and extensive government interest and investment in the sector have made Russia a world leader in artificial intelligence. Today, after huge investments, Russia is one of the only countries in the world that produces its own, with Russia-based firms selling their solutions to governments and businesses in Latin America and the Middle East.

The right to privacy

Russia’s track record of rights violations raises questions about whether authorities will achieve the right balance between restricting civil rights, including privacy, with the need to fight the virus. Russia’s enthusiasm for surveillance before the pandemic gives rise to concern that its expanded use to fight COVID-19 might not end after the pandemic is over.

Russian authorities also seem to be unwilling to even acknowledge the intrusiveness of facial recognition technology. Russian courts recently and swiftly rejected two lawsuits by activists against the use of facial recognition over concerns of privacy violations.

Facial recognition’s increased prominence during the pandemic has also stirred up older controversies around the technology’s privacy implications.

“We’re talking about adding enormous numbers of people to the databases to fight this pandemic”, Sarkis Darbinyan told The Moscow Times. He is a lawyer with RosKomSvoboda, a non-government organisation that tracks online freedoms in Russia, and has supported lawsuits filed against facial recognition in Moscow.

“As far as we know, when a person is ordered into quarantine, their face is added to the watchlist automatically.”

Other countries

Russia is far from being the only country in the world that increased surveillance capabilities to curb the spread of the virus.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, China, itself the country with the world’s most extensive facial recognition systems, has been using the technology to enforce quarantines, track carriers and even detect new cases.

In Israel, the Shin Bet security service has shifted its powerful surveillance program to retrace the movements of coronavirus patients or suspected carriers. The mechanism is similar to that used in Russia – phone and credit card data are used for mapping, and health officials must then alert and quarantine people who were within 2 meters, for 10 minutes or more, of someone infected with the virus, according to the country’s Health Ministry.

Singapore is open-sourcing its coronavirus contact-tracing app, called TraceTogether. The app can identify people who have been within 2m of coronavirus patients for at least 30 minutes, using wireless Bluetooth technology. Its developers say the app is useful when those infected cannot recall whom they had been in close proximity with for an extended duration.

For the app to start tracing, the Bluetooth setting on mobile phones has to be turned on. If a user gets infected, the authorities will be able to quickly find out the other users he has been in close contact with, allowing for easier identification of potential cases and helping curb the spread of the virus.

“The difference lies with the countries that have a higher culture of privacy and a significant limitation of access and use of this data,” said Sarkis Darbinyan. “The scariest thing is that the epidemic will end someday, but these measures I’m sure will stay.”

The epidemic will indeed end at some point, however the Russian government’s infringement on civil liberties, and the right to privacy in particular, through these measures that are currently being extended looks set to continue.

As of 30 March 2020, Russia had 1,836 confirmed cases and 9 deaths.

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