Last November Felix Light reported that Russia is building one of the world’s largest facial recognition systems. He wrote about Moscow’s increasing use of facial recognition technology in policing, which raised fears among privacy advocates and tech experts that the city could exploit mass surveillance. 

Earlier this week, opposition politician Vladimir Milov and activist Alyona Popova filed a complaint against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) over the mass use of facial recognition technology during a protest in Moscow last September. The protest saw more than 20,000 people rally in support of protesters and political prisoners arrested during the lead up to local council elections. While the protest was sanctioned by the authorities, attendees were made to pass through metal detectors equipped with CCTV cameras. 

In their complaint to the ECHR, Milov and Popova stated that the mass use of facial recognition violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including those on the right to freedom of assembly and the right to privacy.

Technology experts say the lawsuit faces a number of hurdles. “This is the first case of such a lawsuit against the facial recognition system in Moscow. But it can hardly change the big picture of both local or federal programs for the development of tracking systems, or on broad public opinion,” said Leonid Kovachich, a Moscow-based technology expert, via email. 

Moscow started trialing facial recognition in 2017. Two years later, Moscow City Hall announced that the technology had been successful in tackling crime and moved to install up to 200,000 surveillance cameras with facial recognition throughout the city. 

According to Kovachich, privacy still remains a low priority in Russian public life. “Historically Russians have not been as concerned with privacy issues as people in the West. And there has not been much awareness among the general population about surveillance. So it was not of great concern. The common opinion was: I’m a simple person, I can hardly be interesting to the intelligence services.” 

“However, as soon as people face real persecution and other difficulties associated with surveillance and facial recognition, attitudes begin to change,” added Kovachich. “In Russia, various social movements have emerged that analyze the legitimacy of such systems, develop countermeasures and even share secrets on how to cheat facial recognition systems with makeup and other means of camouflage.”

In February Coda Story followed Katrin Nenasheva, an artist and an activist in Moscow, an organizer of “Follow,” a rally which attempted to trick facial recognition technology with makeup. You can watch our video here.

Image by Gogi Kamushadze