Russian authorities have been rapidly expanding the use of facial recognition technology across the country, with little to no regulation, oversight, or data protection measures in place. Human Rights Watch has recently highlighted the alarming consequences of this unregulated deployment of facial recognition technology, including concerns about misidentification, infringement on human rights, and the targeting of political opponents. This article delves into the growing use of facial recognition technology in Russia, its implications for privacy and fundamental freedoms, and the urgent need for responsible regulation.
The Unregulated Expansion
As of August 27, 2021, Moscow's government initiated a call for bids to upgrade the existing system used by law enforcement to access facial images and video footage from the city's extensive closed-circuit television (CCTV) network. This upgrade aims to provide law enforcement with the capability to track individuals' movements and identify people who frequently appear in specific locations. Moreover, authorities plan to broaden the filters for data searches, including options based on gender, age, and race.
Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, strongly criticizes the Russian authorities for their irresponsible expansion of facial recognition technology. He argues that the alleged public safety benefits are outweighed by weighty privacy concerns, emphasizing the need to safeguard fundamental rights such as liberty and freedom of association.
Silhouette Recognition and Vehicle Tracking
In addition to facial recognition, Moscow authorities are exploring silhouette recognition technology, which creates unique "silhouettes" of individuals based on characteristics like height, size, and clothing. This technology allows for tracking individuals when their faces are not visible. New video surveillance systems incorporating silhouette recognition and vehicle tracking have already been introduced in several Russian regions.
The Moscow IT Department claims that the planned upgrade is intended to create a safer environment for Moscow residents and enhance data protection. They cite instances where the facial recognition system in the Moscow metro detected criminal suspects as evidence of its effectiveness. However, privacy lawyers and digital rights groups argue that the potential for misuse and abuse of this technology, especially in targeting political opponents, is a grave concern.
Legal and Regulatory Gaps
Despite the widespread use of facial recognition technology in Russia, the country lacks comprehensive legal regulations governing its use, except in the realm of banking. Russian law on Personal Data only grants protection to identifiable individuals' information. The Moscow IT Department contends that the data collected by city cameras is anonymous until law enforcement agencies access it for identification. Moscow courts have upheld this position, even though the procedures for processing data from facial recognition surveillance systems remain closed to public scrutiny.
The "Experimenting with Artificial Intelligence" Law
In April 2020, the Russian parliament passed the "Experimenting with Artificial Intelligence" law, which allowed Moscow authorities to test new technologies, including facial recognition, with fewer personal data legislation restrictions. Kirill Koroteyev, head of the international justice program at Agora, a leading Russian network of human rights lawyers, criticizes this law for emboldening Moscow authorities to disregard personal data legislation and international standards.
Lack of Accountability
The absence of federal-level regulation and accountability mechanisms has led to a lack of transparency and data protection in local policies. Roskomsvoboda, a prominent Russian digital rights organization, has documented multiple data leaks from Moscow's facial recognition system. These leaks have raised concerns about how data is processed and whether it aligns with the publicly available policies.
Case Studies Highlighting Flaws
Reports of mistaken detentions and harassment due to faulty facial recognition matches have further raised concerns. In one case, Sergey Mezhuyev was mistakenly detained in the Moscow metro after the facial recognition system falsely matched his image with that of a wanted criminal suspect. Anton Leushin faced a similar situation when he was falsely identified as a thief and detained at a mall.
Targeting Political Opposition
The Russian government has also employed facial recognition technology to target political opposition and peaceful protesters. Following protests in January over the arrest of political opposition leader Alexey Navalny and government corruption, multiple participants and bystanders were detained and prosecuted based on facial recognition data. Some individuals reported being stopped by the police days before or after the protest for being on a list of "repetitive participants of unsanctioned protests."
The unchecked expansion of facial recognition technology in Russia poses significant risks to privacy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms. Despite growing concerns, the absence of comprehensive regulation and oversight allows for misuse and abuse of this intrusive technology. Urgent action is needed to protect the rights and liberties of Russian citizens and to establish responsible safeguards against the potential misuse of facial recognition technology by the government.