As Russia Lifts Lockdowns, Expanded Surveillance Network May Remain

By Matthew Luxmoore

MOSCOW -- When Marina Khublarova, a Russian mother of seven, experienced coronavirus symptoms in late April, she called the local health service to report them.

After a test for the virus came back positive, Khublarova got a text message instructing her to install a smartphone app called Social Monitoring, used by authorities to enforce stay-at-home rules and other coronavirus-related restrictions on movement.

"That's when the hell began," she said in an interview.

From that moment on, the app sent notifications every two hours -- day and night -- demanding Khublarova upload a selfie to prove she was home.

When her condition worsened in late April, she was taken to a hospital. But the notifications continued. Convalescing in a ward with four other patients, she would switch the lights on to snap selfies at night.

"They just don't let you sleep. You're constantly taking photos," she said.

On May 19, Khublarova received a letter listing two fines totaling 8,000 rubles ($116) for leaving her apartment and failing to submit a photo when required. Both were incurred on April 30 -- the same day an ambulance arrived to take her away.

Khublarova's tragicomic story is not unusual for users of Social Monitoring, which was rolled out in early April and uses GPS to track Moscow residents with suspected symptoms of COVID-19 -- sometimes issuing several fines per user, including a bedridden professor who had not left her home in over a year. 

"You get the sense that authorities are trying to compensate for everything that's happening at the expense of ordinary citizens," said Grigory Sakharov, another Social Monitoring user, who amassed 24,000 rubles ($350) in fines despite, he insists, taking care to stay indoors.

On May 20, the Moscow official who oversees Social Monitoring, Eduard Lysenko, said that the app had issued penalties amounting to 216 million rubles ($3.1 million). The following day, Human Rights Watch urged the authorities to shelve the app, citing both arbitrary fines and what the New York-based group said was invasion of users' privacy.

"The app is not only flawed from a technical standpoint," Tanya Lokshina, the organization's director in Moscow, told RFE/RL. "It is highly intrusive, violates rights to privacy, and effectively expands the government's arsenal of surveillance tools. Mobile tracking programs should be viewed as a strictly temporary measure until the pandemic is under control."

Here To Stay?

Judging by official statements, that time has come. In a blog post on June 9, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin congratulated residents on "our common victory" and announced the city was lifting most of its lockdown measures -- despite still recording almost 2,000 cases daily. But Social Monitoring will remain mandatory for people with coronavirus symptoms, and critics say other digital tools may integrate into a ratcheted-up, post-pandemic surveillance apparatus.

Since March, when Russia's coronavirus epidemic began, the authorities have used facial-recognition technology to identify and fine quarantine violators, deploying, in Moscow alone, a network of over 100,000 cameras that link to a central database accessible to thousands of law enforcement officials at any time. New laws against dissemination of "fake news" have been used to punish criticism of the government's handling of the coronavirus.

On May 29, Russian media reported that Moscow would commence an 18-month trial in July of "virtual passports" that may eventually replace paper IDs across the country and will store much of the same information as the digital passes that Russian cities unveiled during lockdown for users of private and public transport.

But reports of data leaks and system crashes have prompted fears that the personal information they collect -- passport details, car registration numbers, and users' home and work addresses -- are not safe from third parties.

And newly minted electoral reforms permit electronic and mail-in voting -- a move justified by officials as necessary to avoid crowds but denounced by activists as another target for hackers and cybercriminals. It's unclear whether the new rules will come into force before a July 1 vote on constitutional amendments that would hand President Vladimir Putin the option of seeking reelection in 2024 and again in 2030.

'Just The First Step'

Critics say those digital technologies are merely pilot projects for more ambitious tools that the authorities are in the process of developing -- with few assurances that the data they gather will be protected from exploitation.

"This is the first step to something much bigger," said Sarkis Darbinyan of Roskomsvoboda, an NGO that monitors censorship and which has partnered with other groups to track the use of restrictive digital technologies worldwide. "Many of those tools and restrictions may remain in place beyond the pandemic, which greatly concerns civil society."

The concern is not only over the expansion of surveillance. It also relates to massive leaks of government-held personal data in Russia that now appear to be happening with alarming regularity.

On May 18, the newspaper Kommersant reported that the names and passport details of thousands of self-isolation violators in Russia had been published online and made accessible through a simple search of a database listing government-imposed fines. It came a month after reports of an even bigger leak targeting COVID-19 patients across Russia.

In comments to state news agency TASS on June 4, Moscow Mayor Sobyanin said that the use of personal data could be deemed "a violation of citizens' rights" and that all data stored in the Social Monitoring app and digital-pass system would be destroyed. The use of some data, he added, will be possible "in exceptional circumstances."

But on June 8, Putin signed into force a law creating a "unified federal register" of data on Russian citizens, including digital images from facial-recognition cameras. The government said it will streamline a range of official services and data sharing between various state bodies, but it was immediately criticized as another dangerous breach of privacy.

"There are major risks that this information will be leaked onto the black market," Darbinyan said. "The value of personal data is very high."

Amid dire projections about the future of data security in Russia, some are pointing to the Nizhny Novgorod region east of Moscow as a paradigm for the rest of the country. Last month, local authorities obliged beauty salons, barbers, and other service providers to install surveillance cameras at their own expense -- a precondition to reopening after lockdown.

The cameras will be connected to a central database overseen by the regional communications ministry, Governor Gleb Nikitin said, and will be used to check whether social-distancing norms and other precautions are being followed.

In a Facebook post about the initiative, rights activist Alyona Popova, who launched a lawsuit last October against Moscow's use of facial-recognition cameras, said that "officials have lost their heads."

"Under the guise of fighting the coronavirus, they're implementing total surveillance," she wrote. "The best thing to do is to create a system for surveillance of [government] officials. Let their lives become fully transparent and come under citizens' control."

With reporting by Current Time