Russian citizens claim Moscow police are using facial recognition technology to track, trace and detain protesters who have attended rallies in support of leading Putin critic Alexey Navalny. Police have responded harshly to the protests sweeping Russia: more than 5,100 people have been detained so far, with a further 1,000 people arrested yesterday as a Moscow court sentenced the opposition leader to two years and eight months in jail. 

“They stopped my husband in the subway to check his documents, repeating the fatal words ‘face control,” tweeted Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann on Sunday. Her husband, literary critic Mikhail Schulmann, was then taken to a police station in Moscow before later being released. Lawyer Mikhail Biryukov, who represents a number of detainees from the protests, said his client, historian Kamil Galeev, was detained at his home in Zelenograd outside Moscow and charged with attending a rally after he was tracked and identified using images of the protests from January 23. Others have voiced similar claims, including a journalist who said he was tracked using facial recognition after reporting on the protests, and a rapper who described being stopped on the subway after being identified using the technology.  

Why It Matters

Human rights groups and activists are concerned that Russia’s rollout of facial recognition technology is unregulated, invasive, and threatens citizen’s privacy. Moscow first began trialing the systems in 2017, and two years later announced it would install facial recognition software for over 200,000 cameras across the city. 

The pandemic has ushered in a new wave of authoritarian surveillance around the world, and Russia is no exception. During the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak, Moscow was quick to deploy its facial recognition systems to watch over residents who were ordered to isolate under quarantine measures. At the end of January, it emerged that Moscow’s department of information technology was planning to spend a further $39 million on surveillance technology over the next four years. 

The ramping up of this technology in Russia’s capital has alarmed rights experts. “If you live in the big cities, you should understand that there is less and less space for privacy,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer for Roskomsvoboda, a Moscow-based digital rights organization. He added: I don’t believe that this will really stop people from the protests from coming out to the streets. But it makes the risk for them broader.”

The Big Picture 

Human rights groups in Russia have also reported that protesters’ biometric information is being collected en masse. Apologia Protesta, a group of human rights lawyers that provides legal aid to political prisoners, said detainees had reported being forced to submit fingerprints, saliva and shoe print samples. “This could be done either to check against the Federal Genomic Information Database, or to illegally replenish the same database,” the lawyers said in a statement via Telegram.

Facial recognition is an increasingly popular tool used to control and track protesters around the world, and was deployed during the anti-government protests in Delhi last summer. The technology is also being adapted so it can also recognize people wearing facemasks, with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announcing in January that it was piloting “promising” new technology that could identify masked individuals.  

While the use of facial recognition during the Navalny protests has yet to be independently confirmed, the very threat of “face control” is enough to instill fear among ordinary Russians. Facial recognition cameras, said Darbinyan, “not only control the behavior of people in public places but also make them change their behavior because they fear that they can be tracked by these cameras.”