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Russian challenges use of facial-recognition technology that has facilitated protest crackdown

A VeriScan facial recognition tablet takes photo of airline passenger at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., Sept. 6, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A Russian rights activist is challenging the Moscow city government over its growing use of facial-recognition technology amid widespread concerns that it violates citizens’ constitutional right to privacy and is being used as an instrument in the state’s crackdown on dissent.

Alyona Popova, a Moscow lawyer and prominent women’s rights activist, said she was inspired to launch the lawsuit after learning that facial-recognition cameras had been used to identify her when she protested outside parliament in April 2018 against a lawmaker accused of sexual harassment by several women.

She was subsequently fined 20,000 rubles ($310) after a court ruled that she had violated Russia’s strict laws on public gatherings.

“Already then I was entertaining thoughts of launching a campaign against the illegal facial-recognition system,” Popova wrote in an October 7 Facebook post announcing her decision to file the lawsuit.

In recent years, Russia has emerged as a leading force in the development of facial-recognition technology. In 2017, the Moscow mayor’s office announced that the city had activated a facial-recognition system that deploys over 3,000 cameras throughout the capital.

The following year, the soccer World Cup was used as a test case for the technology and paved the way for its expansion afterwards. By the end of 2019, the city plans to update 40 percent of its 162,000 cameras with the official aim of aiding in the identification of offenders.

The growing use of surveillance technology has drawn scrutiny in many countries that have expanded the use of facial recognition. In Russia, the increase has coincided with what Kremlin opponents and rights activists say have been persistent efforts to silence civil society and suppress dissenting voices since President Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 after a stint as prime minister.

Broad Public Campaign

Popova is not alone in campaigning against the growth of Russia’s capacity in the field, and she has seized on widespread suspicion about the state’s intentions to drum up support.

“Apart from the lawsuit, we’ve decided it’s necessary to launch a broad public campaign,” she wrote. “Even if, with our legal system, we lose the lawsuit to Moscow, we will go further. We demand a federal ban on the use of this technology.”

Among the means Popova is using to draw attention to this campaign is an online petition she launched on October 7, which had gathered more than 500 signatures within a few hours. She has also coordinated her lawsuit with Roskomsvoboda, an organization that monitors online censorship and surveillance in Russia.

On the same day the petition was launched, Roskomsvoboda issued a statement backing Popova’s lawsuit and her calls for a moratorium on the use of facial-recognition systems, which “should be banned until full transparency about their use and their safety for citizens is ensured.”

While Putin’s government defends the expansion of facial recognition as a necessary addition to its crime-fighting arsenal of measures already used across the world to maintain order, it is the crime-fighting aspect of the systems that has come under increasing scrutiny against the backdrop of Moscow’s concerted crackdown on activists who took part in protests for free elections in the city this past summer.

‘Disquieting And Frightening’

Rights activists assert that the facial-recognition technology has been used to identify people who have taken part in the rallies, many of which were held without permission from the authorities, who critics say use the permit process as a tool to tamp down dissent.

Seven people have been sentenced to prison over the protests, and others fined. Facial-recognition cameras that analyze video in real time supplement the use of mobile cameras mounted on police trucks that trail the crowds to create a robust system of surveillance capable of deterring many from participating in such rallies, critics allege.

According to Vyacheslav Abanichev, the father of Sergei Abanichev, a protester who was arrested and jailed for a month on a charge of incitement to riot after tossing a paper cup at a riot police officer during an unsanctioned rally on July 27, his son’s arrest and prosecution were only possible because of the use of facial recognition.

“This is a very advanced technology that can be used to capture criminals or spies,” he told Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “But what’s disquieting and frightening is that this is total surveillance over all citizens.”