Predictions come true: how the pandemic contributed to the surveillance of the Russians


On May 5, the World Health Organization announced the lifting of the state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, this means the end of the pandemic, which lasted 3 years, one month and 24 days.

Back in 2020, we raised concerns that the introduction of digital restrictions and the use of technology for surveillance under the pretext of fighting the coronavirus could lead to total surveillance of citizens in the future.

Three years later, we regret to confirm that our predictions have come true. Since April 2020, we have recorded on the PandemicBigBrother map more than 800 cases and related publications about violations of digital rights of citizens during the pandemic or the prerequisites for such violations. Such violations include the use of a facial recognition system, surveillance through mobile operators, Internet shutdowns, the use of drones and special applications, restrictions on freedom of speech online, including the blocking of websites and specific pages, as well as administrative and criminal prosecution for the dissemination of fake news about coronavirus.

In Russia, at the end of the pandemic, we see that the authorities continued to use the same methods of surveillance and prosecution, only shifting the focus from the topic of coronavirus to “special operation”.

Face recognition

After the announcement of “partial mobilization”, the facial recognition system in Moscow, which had shown its “success”, to search for violators of the quarantine regime, began to be used to search for evaders. Young people were detained at the entrance to the Moscow metro and sent to the military registration and enlistment offices.

The face recognition system itself was taken to a new level in the first year of the pandemic. Back in early 2020, the government purchased equipment for deploying surveillance in transport for almost 2 billion rubles and since February it has begun using a video surveillance system to search for quarantine violators.

In August 2020, the Moscow authorities spent 1.38 billion rubles for the installation of more than 12 thousand cameras in the Moscow metro and 418 face recognition servers, in September - another 193.9 million rubles for the deployment of a similar surveillance system in Moscow trams.

For the period of validity of digital passes in the spring of 2020, in addition to the face recognition system, video cameras on the roads were used to search for drivers who did not issue the appropriate pass. Residents of Moscow received automatic fines for not having a digital pass.

Already in 2021, the appetite for total surveillance began to grow and the authorities announced plans to introduce the Safe City facial recognition system throughout Russia. In the same year, this system began to be used to search for protesters. We recorded several dozen such cases and talked to people who were detained on the streets and in the metropolitan subway based on the results of the recognition system.

Now, in 2023, facial recognition is helping authorities track down conscripts and draft dodgers. Immediately after the arrest, they are taken to military registration and enlistment offices or police departments for further proceedings.

Pressure on freedom of speech

A similar situation has developed in the field of combating "fake" news.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, governments in many countries began to restrict freedom of speech on the Internet, stopping the spread of fake news about the coronavirus. Separate laws and regulations were adopted, more often involving fines against citizens and criminal liability.

On April 1, 2020, Putin signed a law imposing fines for violating the quarantine regime and disseminating false information. For spreading fakes, including on the Internet, both a fine of 300,000 rubles and imprisonment for up to five years could be punished. Criminal cases were initiated, including for jokes where conspiracy theories about the coronavirus were ridiculed.

There are known cases of prosecution, including for messages in the messengers Viber, WhatsApp, as well as for posts on Vkontakte and other social networks. At the same time, Roskomnadzor and the Prosecutor General's Office began blocking websites and pages on the Internet for spreading fakes.

Three years later, we observe a similar behavior of the authorities in relation to the news about the “special operation”. In March 2022, the State Duma hurriedly adopted a law criminalizing fakes about the actions of the Russian army. In addition, a law was also adopted on criminal liability for the dissemination of fakes about the work of any state bodies of Russia abroad.

After the adoption of these laws, for a year now, we have recorded several dozen new criminal and administrative cases every month against activists, journalists, politicians, artists and ordinary Internet users for fakes about the army. The real terms of imprisonment under the new article of the Criminal Code reach 8-9 years. Politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison, RusNews journalist Maria Ponomarenko - to 6 years in prison, municipal deputy Alexei Gorinov - to 7 years in a colony.

In March 2023, the authorities decided to further toughen the responsibility for discrediting the army by expanding the application of the law, including to volunteer formations, organizations and individuals who assist in the fulfillment of the tasks assigned to the Russian army.

“Anti-coronavirus” applications and excessive data collection

In April 2020, the Ministry of Digital Development began collecting the phone numbers of quarantined people in order to launch a tracking system for patients by geolocation. Later, this initiative grew into the Social Monitoring app, which drew harsh criticism from Moscow residents and privacy advocates.

In the fall of 2020, the Moscow government became interested in employees transferred to remote work, obliging employers to provide car numbers, mobile phones, transport and social cards of employees.

Back in 2021, with the rise in popularity of vaccination certificate apps, international advocacy organization Access Now raised concerns that such apps create “space for exclusion and discrimination to flourish and serious long-term threats to the privacy and security of millions of people around the world.”

Such applications created a discriminatory environment, restricting citizens' rights to travel and access services. Three years later, it became clear that such applications had not proven their effectiveness in the fight against the pandemic, as evidenced, among other things, by published studies, and the invasion of privacy was disproportionately higher.

In addition, the over-collection of sensitive medical data and its lack of protection also put citizens' privacy at risk. We have recorded at least several large cases of leaks of personal data of patients, including their addresses and passport data. At the end of 2020, the data of 300,000 Moscow residents who had recovered from the coronavirus became publicly available, and in 2022, QR codes from the STOP Coronavirus Public Services application.

In 2022, a record number of data breaches were recorded in Russia. In the public domain, including data from the application "Gosuslugi", "Moscow Electronic School", the largest operators and companies. This suggests that after the incidents with leaks related to the coronavirus, the authorities did not take the necessary steps to protect the personal data of citizens.

At present, the public still does not know how governments have disposed of the information collected during the pandemic. Sensitive data includes not only medical information and medical history, but also data on movements with digital passes for the period of restrictions.

Now, the appetites of the authorities for surveillance, including movements, continue to grow. For example, the FSB requested “24/7 remote access” to taxi data, including geolocation and passenger payments. It is assumed that such access will be provided on a pre-trial basis.

What conclusions can be drawn:

  • in Russia, the coronavirus pandemic, as expected, served as an impetus for the authorities to deploy technologies for surveillance;
  • face recognition systems, having intensively trained during the period of tracking the movement of people in coronavirus, have become more "pumped" for the prosecution of specific individuals;
  • three years later, the authorities continue to use the same methods of persecution and restriction of freedom of speech, shifting the focus from a pandemic to a “special operation”;
  • the authorities did not take any action to protect sensitive personal data from leaks from state systems, as well as from commercial and private databases, limiting themselves to minor fines of several tens of thousands of rubles for large companies;
  • data collected about Russians during the pandemic may later be used for other purposes that are not transparent to society, since the authorities did not report on the deletion of this data.