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HRW warns of privacy concerns as Russia expands facial-recognition systems

CCTV camera Russia (Svetlov Artem/WikiCommons)

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

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticized Russia’s plans to expand the use of “invasive” facial-recognition systems because of the group’s “serious concern” over the project’s potential threat to privacy.

The Kommersant newspaper reported last week that CCTV cameras with facial-recognition software will be installed in public spaces and at the entryway of apartment buildings in 10 pilot cities across Russia, with the purported aim of protecting public safety.

The technology is already used in Moscow, where the authorities are planning to expand its use in trams and underground trains.

“Russia’s track record of rights violations means that the authorities should be prepared to answer tough questions to prove they are not are undermining people’s rights by pretending to protect public safety,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, said in a statement on October 2.

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The expected deployment of facial-recognition technology across the country has also been criticized by international human rights group Amnesty International, which has warned it would “inevitably have a chilling effect” on protesters, as well as by privacy groups and digital-rights lawyers in Russia.

Russian national security laws and surveillance practices “enable law enforcement agencies to access practically any data in the name of protecting public safety,” according to HRW, which cited reports highlighting “a pattern of data breaches” in connection with the integration of the facial-recognition software into Moscow’s video surveillance.

The legal-aid nongovernmental organization Agora is challenging Moscow’s use of the technology at the European Court of Human Rights, saying there is no judicial or public oversight over surveillance methods in Russia, including facial recognition.

Last month, Anna Kuznetsova of Roskomsvoboda, an NGO that monitors censorship, filed a lawsuit against the Moscow Information Technology Department, claiming that she easily gained access to the data gathered by dozens of cameras across the Russian capital.

Kuznetsova said the data was made available for sale on the “dark web” and included detailed information about her whereabouts over the period of one month.

Meanwhile, Roskomsvoboda has documented at least seven cases of Moscow residents whose personal data was made available for sale on the Internet this year.

Moscow investigators have opened a criminal case into the alleged sale of facial-recognition data by two law enforcement officials, but HRW said the authorities “do not seem to recognize the need for developing appropriate limits on collecting, processing, and storing personal data, which would help prevent such security breaches.”

HRW said the Russian authorities should suspend the use of facial-recognition technology nationwide and “invite civil-society experts and policymakers to engage in a debate regarding the necessity, proportionality, and legality of the use of facial-recognition surveillance.”