The Russian government’s use of biometric technologies, including facial recognition, for surveilling and repressing journalists in Moscow and other major Russian cities poses a major threat to the freedom of expression within the country.
On June 12, Russian Independence Day, SOTA journalist Pyotr Ivanov, who works for one of the few remaining independent outlets in Russia, was transiting through Moscow on his way to his hometown, St. Petersburg. However, Ivanov was stopped by the police as soon as he entered the Moscow metro.
In an interview with IPI, Ivanov described how he was questioned while being led to a nearby police station. He said that he had no outstanding fines, no criminal record, and had not participated in any recent protests. The police themselves did not know why they were detaining him, only that he had been flagged by the facial recognition system installed in all Moscow metro stations, called Sfera.
Ivanov was held for several hours and eventually released. The reason for his detention remained unclear.
SOTA soon realized that the picture Sfera had used to recognize Ivanov’s face had been taken from a post on the outlet’s Telegram channel, detailing the release of the journalist and a colleague after the two were detained while covering an anti-war demonstration in St. Petersburg on March 6.
Ivanov was one of 43 people detained in the Moscow metro on Russia Day. Most were released after a few hours, including science journalist Asya Kazantseva. In an interview with Mediazona, Kazantseva revealed that the police forced her to write a statement in which she described her “prophylactic conversation” with the officers about how those previously detained “should not be in the Moscow metro on Russia Day”. Similarly, on May 9, Russian Victory Day, 37 people were detained in the metro, with all but five being subsequently released.
To those detained, it has become clear that the authorities have created a photo database for activists, journalists, and other potential threats to the Kremlin’s status quo. Coinciding with Russian national holidays, the system has seen the preventative detention of dozens that the regime suspects to be potential instigators of public unrest.
Sfera became fully operational in September 2020, according to the Moscow Transportation Department. The system was described as being able to detect criminals, children declared missing, and others in need. It was claimed that the identity of regular citizens would be protected through a complex encryption system. However, the authorities never disclosed the full details of the software.
Sfera was integrated into the wider Moscow surveillance system, which uses more than 180,000 cameras used for facial recognition, in accordance with the federal Bezopasniy Gorod program, or Safe City, which started in 2014, spreading to Russia’s major urban centers.
Moscow remains the country’s preeminent surveillance center. In the city, cameras can be found at the entrances of most living blocks, in all public buildings, and around notable landmarks. From its earliest days, this surveillance infrastructure operated as a mechanism for political repression. It soon turned into a key tool for the detention of protesters and journalists, who were in some cases arrested days after participating in oppositional rallies.
“The surveillance system operates entirely outside the law”, Sarkis Darbinyan, a spokesperson for Roskomsvoboda, a leading Russian NGO focused on the protection of digital rights, told IPI in an interview.
“It is unclear who has access to the system and who controls it. It has come to present one of the most serious threats to freedom of expression and speech.”
Having closely monitored independent journalists for years, the Russian authorities have been able to gather biometric information on its citizens from a variety of sources.
According to a report by independent watchdog OVD-Info on the use of facial recognition in detaining protesters, the authorities make use of federal databases containing all passports, both current and expired, as well as local administrative databases.
In 2020, the Ministry of Internal Affairs allocated 245 million rubles for the creation of an upgraded version of the federal informational database, called IBD-F 2.0. The responsibilities of the new system range from the centralization of other informational databases, to receiving information on those staying in hotels alongside collecting information on “criminals and lawbreakers”.
Yet the government often makes use of sources beyond official databases. Ivanov’s story is not an isolated incident. In the interview, Darbinyan recalled an incident involving the famous activist and art expert Mihail Shuliman, who was detained in the Moscow metro on January 30, 2021. The photo Sfera used to flag the activist was from an article written in 2012, when Shuliman was attacked by unknown assailants and sustained severe head traumas, placing him in the ICU.
“The facial recognition systems are not alone, they are part of a wider surveillance network”, said Darbinyan. “Opposition figures have been monitored by the authorities for a long time, it is not a problem for them to get the pictures.”
The future of surveillance
On June 20, reports emerged that the Russian authorities planned on allocating 15 billion rubles from the federal budget to expand the Safe City program to regions bordering Ukraine. With repressions of journalism growing in intensity, the expansion of the government’s surveillance infrastructure poses serious threats to the work of free media.
Firstly, the policy of preventative arrests resulting from the pervasive tracking of journalists in public spaces amounts to open harassment and intimidation of members of the press, preventing Russia’s remaining independent journalists from doing their jobs.
At the same time, the construction of such a vast surveillance architecture more broadly threatens the ability of journalists to work free from state oversight, contributing to the climate of fear that has emerged within Russia and which has caused many outlets to avoid reporting on sensitive topics, allowing the government’s propaganda machine to dominate the popular narrative. It also undermines source protection, and sources may be less willing to come forward with information if their interactions with journalists are at greater risk of being tracked and exposed.