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Researchers spotlight Russia’s opaque facial recognition surveillance system

Researchers spotlight Russia’s opaque facial recognition surveillance system

In recent years, Russia has been attracting attention for its use of facial recognition surveillance to track down protestors, opposition members and citizens evading the military draft. A new report details the rise of surveillance in the country, its legal foundations and its potential future paths.

The report, titled State of Surveillance, was written by an anonymous team of self-described online freedom experts under the name RKS Global.

The research highlights the legal ambiguity of facial recognition: Currently, there are no federal laws that explicitly regulate governmental use of the technology or state-wide facial recognition systems. Instead, authorities rely on exemptions from existing laws to cover their legal basis.

“The absence of explicit regulation on the use of facial recognition, its admissibility as court evidence, and the overall opacity of relevant procedures contribute to the abuse of police access to the database and to the existence of black data market,” the report says.

The story of Russia’s facial recognition surveillance begins in Moscow where authorities have been building the infrastructure for years. This includes the Unified Data Storage and Processing Center, a central video data storage that presumably collects all CCTV cameras and a significant share of public cameras. Data from the storage center is linked to PARSIV (Subsystem for Automatic Registration of Scenarios for Indexing Video-information), an IT software used by the police to search for suspected criminals.

Citywide deployment of AI systems began during the COVID-19 pandemic with the help of algorithms provided by NtechLab, VisionLabs and Tevian. The city also has a Safe City Program, which integrates public transportation, health and law enforcement information systems. The Moscow Metro operates its own facial recognition system named Sfera.

“The main troubling aspect of the use of facial recognition in Moscow is that the procedure of gathering reference images is completely opaque, as well as its subsequent use for identification,” the report notes. “Despite low image quality standards and the absence of any parliamentary or judicial oversight, facial recognition results serve as evidence in court, a tool for political repression, and are sold on illegal markets.”

At the end of 2022, the Unified Biometrics System Law came into force, allowing the government to become an exclusive controller of biometric personal data such as facial images and voice. All institutions and entities are required to transfer biometric data to the state which provides paid access to it.

“Currently, there is no publicly available evidence of when the UBS was used as a surveillance tool by itself; however, we conjecture that the UBS is just one piece of the whole state surveillance puzzle that complements the arsenal of surveillance instruments available to the government,” the report says.

Russian authorities are planning an expansion of facial recognition surveillance to other cities,  earmarking US$129.6 million for a nationwide system for storing and processing data from all surveillance cameras across the country. This includes a nationwide centralized IT platform for the storage and processing of video surveillance data. The expansion, however, may be underfunded.

The Ministry of Transport has postponed plans for increasing surveillance in transportation hubs. Announcements have also been made that public schools will implement the technology, with several schools already installing systems.

The March 2024 terrorist attack at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall, which led to hundreds of deaths, has put the security benefits of facial recognition at the center of debates again. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs has recently revived the idea of creating a mobile app containing biometric data that would be mandatory for all migrant workers arriving in Russia.

The State of Surveillance also deals with other types of surveillance systems, including the notorious SORM, a system for lawful interception of electronic communication. RKS Global is composed of journalists, lawyers and technical specialists, according to its website.

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