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How Russia uses authoritarian technology to curb coronavirus



The Covid-19 pandemic now gives the Russian authorities an opportunity to test new powers and technologies, and the country’s integrity and outspoken advocates worry that the government is building a new monitoring capability.

Perhaps the most well-publicized technical tool in Russia’s arsenal is to fight the coronavirus Moscow’s massive facial recognition system. Added earlier this year, the surveillance system had originally caused an unusual general setback, with advocates for integrity filing lawsuits over illegal surveillance.

However, coronavirus has given an unexpected publicity boost to the system.

Last week, the Moscow police claimed to have captured and fined 200 people who violated quarantine and self-isolation with face recognition and a system of 1

70,000 cameras. According to a Russian media report, some of the alleged offenders who had been fined had been outdoors for less than half a minute before being picked up by a camera.

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

In this photo taken on February 22, a surveillance camera is seen, top left, as people descend into a Moscow subway.

The system has also been used to analyze social networks for those who have or are suspected of having coronavirus. Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin described in his official blog how municipal authorities tracked down a Chinese woman who flew to the city from Beijing in February.

While a test eventually turned negative, Sobyanin said authorities located the taxi driver who took the woman home from the airport, a friend she met outside her multi-family home in violation of the quarantine and collected information on all 600 people who lived in her building.

And then there is the use of geolocation to track coronavirus carriers. Epidemiologists see tracking and data crashing as an important tool for tracking and locating outbreaks, but Russia has taken a distinct approach. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin ordered the Russian Ministry of Communications to launch a tracking system based on “geolocation data from mobile providers for a certain person” at the end of this week.

In other words, the information collected by the system will not be anonymous: According to a description in the government decree, information collected under the tracking system will be used to send texts to those who have come into contact with a coronavirus carrier, and to report the regional authorities so that they can quarantine individuals.

Such measures have led to little public debate. And Russia is far from the only country in the world that increased surveillance capabilities to limit the spread of the virus.

A video surveillance camera is pictured at the Novomoskovsky Medical Center for patients suspected of the coronavirus infection symptoms in Moscow.

In Israel, the Shin Bet Security Service has moved its powerful monitoring program to restore the movements of coronavirus patients or suspected carriers. The mechanism is similar to that used in Russia – phone and credit card data is 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 Ministry of Health.

The ministry said in a statement that the information will only be used by its specialists and will be deleted after 60 days. But rights groups have filed a petition against it to the High Court of Justice, which warned that it will close the program unless more surveillance is in place. On Thursday, Shin Bet said in a statement that it helped the health authorities identify and isolate more than 500 residents who turned out to be sick with the coronavirus.

In South Korea, the government used data from credit card transactions, geolocation and surveillance films to provide detailed information on patients with coronavirus without identifying them by name, according to a government website. The result was a map where people can see if they were near a coronavirus carrier. Detailed history led to some patients being deaf – with their personal information sent without consent – and authorities decided to tighten the data sharing policy.

Mobile carriers in the European Union share data with health authorities in Italy, Germany and Austria to monitor how people follow social distance, Reuters reported. The US government is investigating the use of anonymous data collected by tech giants for similar purposes, according to The Washington Post. But in Russia, privacy concerns that the country’s use of facial recognition had already been a legal gray zone; stricter measures in the middle of the coronavirus can enable the state to exert even more control over its citizens when the epidemic is over.

Why does Russia, 146 million inhabitants, have fewer coronavirus cases than Luxembourg?

“The difference lies with those countries that have a higher privacy culture and a significant restriction on access to and use of this information,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer with Roskomsvoboda, a non-governmental organization that tracks online freedoms in Russia. “The most frightening thing is that the epidemic will end one day, but these measures I am sure will stop.”

At the same time, Russia plans to expand its existing systems as the number of coronavirus cases increases. But Moscow’s system of monitoring Big Brother is far from perfect. Outside the capital of Russia, face recognition is usually limited to airports and railway stations, but the government says it is preparing to use other surveillance tools in an attempt to further map the virus patterns.


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