Russia: facial recognition and databases of "regular protesters"

Source: Victor gringas, Moscow Russia Kremlin closed during protests, CC BY-SA 3.0

Privacy or security? The great question.

In a previous note We noted that Russia had started to implement its mass surveillance project using facial recognition in Moscow. In the same way, we highlight the privacy problems, mainly, that the implementation of these measures could entail.

The truth is that, as a result of the surveillance reforms regarding the pandemic, the introduction of this type of technology is no longer conceived so much from the perspective of privacy (individualistic conception), but rather, security is given greater prominence ( community conception), either around an epidemiological event or around one of civil demonstrations.

Now, the results are known.

Three weeks ago there was a demonstration against the Kremlin regarding the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which was attended by many. But some did not arrive, precisely because of their surveillance system. That was the case of Georgy Malets, a Russian photo blogger, who told Reuters be "arrested on his way there (rally in the Kremlin) because the police had used facial recognition technology in the Moscow metro”. Apparently, the camera system used by the police is "Face ID". According to his testimony, this system combines databases of social networks (photographs, mainly) with the images that it captures in real time in the places under surveillance.

This was clearly not the only case. Other protesters pointed out that the police were using this technology to make pre-trial arrests and detentions. In addition, it is known that they have developed a database of "regular protesters", clearly, to pay more attention to their movements, "in a preventive way."

Similarly, Samariddin Radzhabov was also detained in the Moscow subway before he joined the rally. At first, it was mentioned that these surveillance cameras were being installed in the Moscow metro in order to identify wanted criminals, later, to control Covid casesToday, the focus is on the protesters, or those who "are heading to a demonstration." But the cameras are not only in the subway, in fact their installation has been expanding practically throughout Moscow.

The most worrying thing? According to attorney Kirill Koroteev, “there is still much that we do not know about the facial recognition system in Moscow (…) it is not clear how automated the system is, if all the cameras used it and what databases they used".

The million dollar question, does the right to protest include anonymity? According to Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: “the guarantee of privacy and anonymity are also part of the rights of association and assembly (…) States must guarantee the full protection of anonymous speech and must regulate the specific cases and conditions when such anonymity must be lifted"

However, we must not forget that in Russia there are greater restrictions on the right to assembly, such as the fact that they must have prior authorization. Without neglecting the vast complaints of arbitrary detention or excessive use of force.

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Marilú Lazo
Lawyer from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP). Director of The Crypto Legal Blog, she has experience in corporate advice, consumer protection, as well as in matters of personal data protection and new technologies.

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