SOCIETY
Big Brother gets even bigger: new tools for mass surveillance in Russia
September 16, 2022
The Kazan-based human rights organization Agora recently published a report detailing new plans by the government to expand mass secret surveillance of activists and independent journalists, as well as racial profiling of ordinary citizens. 
Pavel Chíkov, chair of Agora, 2016. Source: Wiki Commons
Over the past several years, law enforcement agencies in Russia have expanded mass surveillance systems on the pretext of improving public safety and countering terrorism. However, as the authors of a new report called Technologies of Political Profiling write, ongoing plans by the Russian government to automate surveillance systems and unify law enforcement databases may open up new opportunities for mass political repression.

The report, published by Network Freedoms, a project launched by the Kazan-based human rights organization Agora, describes recent setbacks in developing Russia’s new system of state surveillance. Work on the unified system was scheduled to finish this year. However, due to a contract dispute between the government and the private contractor developing the system, in July work on the system was postponed indefinitely.

The system was planned to give officials direct access to information about personal documents, wanted citizens, hotel guests, vehicles, weapons, border crossings, trips by public transport, family connections, as well as biometric data about citizens. All of the above was to be available through a single unified system that would integrate disparate regional and departmental law enforcement databases. Likewise, the system was supposed to be connected to law enforcement agency databases of other CIS countries in accordance with the regional organization’s agreement on information exchange in the field of combating crime.

Despite the recent setbacks, authors of the Network Freedoms report note that Russia already has in place a massive network for monitoring the activities of civic activists and independent journalists. This includes street surveillance with facial recognition technology, control over people’s movement within the country and through border crossings, wiretapping, as well as interception and analysis of internet traffic.

The report also highlights political profiling by the state. Since the end of February 2022 Russian law enforcement agencies have been profiling citizens of Ukraine. In fact, the FSB openly stated that Ukrainian citizens could be suspected of espionage within Russia, while ethnic Ukrainians who are Russian citizens could be suspected of high treason. Citizens of Ukraine displaced by the war and who have relocated to Russia report that Russian special services have been collecting large amounts of personal data, including photographs, fingerprints, details on political views, and copying all mobile device data. However, “in the spring and summer of 2022 during military operations in Ukraine, the practice of ethnic profiling, including against Ukrainians, probably is not widespread," note the authors of the report.

Ethnic profiling has been used in Russia for years. For example, law enforcement agencies actively profiled ethnic Georgians and citizens of Georgia back in 2006. Police checked passports of ethnic Georgians and even asked schools for information about the nationality of schoolchildren and their parents. According to Human Rights Watch, in the Fall of 2006 thousands of native Georgians were detained, and more than 2,300 were expelled from Russia, many of whom legally resided in the country. Likewise, police in large metropolitan areas like Moscow are known to single out individuals with a “non-Slavic” appearance. So too were instances of ethnic profiling against Chinese nationals reported at the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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