Authoritarians love smart cities. Russia is no exception


Authoritarians love smart cities projects.

Vladimir Putin is no exception. Moscow has been on a mission to become a smart city for the last decade. Russia’s capital has around 200,000 surveillance cameras. That’s more cameras per square mile than in Beijing or New York. In October 2021, the Moscow Metro launched a facial recognition payment system. Branded as a quick, contactless way of paying ride fares, it was also used for surveillance. Since September 2020, almost 3,000 criminals have been caught in the Moscow Metro because of the system, according to city authorities. But the extreme crackdown on dissent triggered by the war in Ukraine makes Moscow’s technological advances terrifying for anyone who opposes the government.

Since the start of war in Ukraine, speaking out against the government has become incredibly risky for the Russians. Over 15,000 people have been detained for protesting and anyone who does as little as sharing a social media post that contradicts the official position risks a 15-year prison sentence.

FacePay, which has worried digital rights activists, could make the whole of the city especially dangerous for those who oppose the invasion of Ukraine. There is a precedent: a few months prior in February participants of mass protests in support of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny were being arrested in the underground and in their own homes. Authorities accessed their data through the citywide facial recognition system. 

“‘Smart’ cities are also by definition surveillance cities,” said Ella Jakubowska, Policy Advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi) network. “The same sensors, cameras and devices that are rolled out to monitor environments, traffic, and many other hundreds of parameters can often be repurposed to surveil individuals at the touch of a button or the tweak of an algorithm.”

Moscow is hardly the sole example of “smart” technology being used to crackdown on freedoms.

China, the uncontested leader in the surveillance field, has been exporting its tools abroad. Of the 64 countries that have purchased its “safe and smart city” technology, 41 were ranked as “not free” or “partly free” by Freedom House.

This includes Egypt, where authorities launched an ambitious project to build not one but 17 smart cities across the country that would be equipped with cameras and sensors to monitor suspicious activity. 

Police in Dubai, a smart city in the UAE, are now using smart patrol cars equipped with facial recognition tech.

Saudi Arabia is going above and beyond. It’s building a new megacity called NEOM, which will be the “world’s first cognitive city.” It will supposedly “interact” with the citizens, using a range of personal digital, financial and health data.

“Every detail of the private life of the citizens is known to the government. Anyone who bothers the regime can get arrested. People themselves are going to self-censor themselves knowing that they are watched, listened to, and that any time there are repercussions to their behavior”, says Lina al-Hathloul, Head of Monitoring and Communications at ALQST for Human Rights, a Saudi Arabian NGO.

“It’s a big win to the government. It’s a very good way for the authoritarian regime to have all the people muzzled.”

IN OTHER GLOBAL NEWS by Caitlin Thompson

Venezuela has its own social media platform now. VenApp is similar to apps like Telegram with chats and channels. President Nicolas Maduro is heavily promoting it. Much like Former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social app, VenApp isn’t off to a strong start. On Android, only 50,000 people have downloaded it so far. But this homegrown app is a troubling development in a country where digital authoritarianism is on the rise. The privacy policy says that it may share data with the government and law enforcement. VenApp is “a place where everyone should expect complete surveillance,” said Marianne Díaz Hernández from Access Now. 

Facial recognition company Clearview AI can’t block a lawsuit in California. That’s according to the latest decision in a U.S. District Court. The lawsuit, filed in 2021 on behalf of four activists and two immigrant rights groups, alleges that Clearview AI violated Californians’ rights when it collected their biometric data and images without consent. Clearview has come under fire for contracts with law enforcement, including federal immigration enforcer, ICE, and the company faces another similar lawsuit in Illinois. Last week, I wrote about Clearview in the context of the war in Ukraine.  
Iran’s controversial internet censorship bill hit a roadblock, but its fate is not sealed yet. The Protection Bill would give the government next-level control over the online spaces, making it easier to shut down the internet and monitor and censor everything people do online. Hours after a committee of 19 lawmakers ratified key parts of the bill on February 22, that vote was annulled. But it’s not over yet. “If implemented, this will carry grave risks of increased and even complete communication blackouts in Iran, and it is likely to be used as a tool to conceal serious human rights violations,” wrote over 50 digital rights groups.


I’m enjoying Dr. Sarah Brayne’s book “Predict and Surveil: Data, Discretion, and the Future of Policing” on how police use data to drive their surveillance apparatus. She had some incredible access to the inner workings of these systems in places like Los Angeles.

There are a couple other things that have caught my eye too:

  • This excerpt of Brian Hochman’s book “The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States” which digs into the evolution of spytech and listening devices
  • This Slate article on Russians’ race to make a copy of Russian-language Wikipedia before the government blocks it