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Surveillance pandemic Russia carried out surveillance on an unprecedented scale during the coronavirus lockdown

The Russian authorities organized unprecedented, large-scale surveillance over the country’s citizens during the coronavirus pandemic, says a new report titled “Surveillance Pandemic” from the human rights organization “Agora.” In many cases, this was carried out not only in violation of personal data laws, but also by organizations that cannot and should not be responsible for monitoring. 

The authorities tracked the whereabouts of citizens throughout the country through the centralized processing of geolocation data from mobile phones. The authors of the report also calculated that at the regional level, 61 of Russia’s federal subjects used additional surveillance technologies: 24 regions introduced some form of digital passes, while 16 used analogue passes in the form of certificates. What’s more, 12 regions used face recognition systems to identify quarantine violators. Much of the data was improperly stored, which led to regular leaks.

The report also notes that in the majority of Russia’s regions, a wide-range of individuals — “from medical and emergency workers, to taxi drivers, people’s volunteer guards, and members of Cossack societies” — were granted the power to interfere in the private lives of citizens. By law, only police and Russian Guard officers have the right to do this. 

The authors of the report treated the situation in Moscow separately, noting that effectively, residents of the capital were divided into four strict categories with various degrees of rights and freedoms. The “privileged” group (civil servants, military servicemen, police officers, and journalists) could move throughout the city freely, while “regular” residents had to stay in self-isolation. Other residents (for example, people over the age of 65), were “deprived of rights” and generally banned from leaving their residences without a special reason. The “isolated” category (people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 or respiratory infections) were banned from leaving their homes all together, and were controlled electronically using the “Social Monitoring” app. 

Agora’s activists also expressed concerns about these measures being repeated in the future — that the experiences and resources accumulated during the pandemic will allow the authorities to quickly deploy tight surveillance, and differentiate citizens in terms of rights and freedoms, even without declaring a state of emergency. 

“Not all of these technologies will be used permanently, however, the test-drive has passed and, most likely, was considered a success. What we are observing now is a kind of symbiosis of ‘Soviet’ and ‘capital’ — and this is a very sad experience. The Soviet mentality of Russian leaders [...] makes them think that any problem can be solved with the help of monitoring. But, on the other hand, surveillance is also a business. And all of the gadgets, cameras, data centers, electronic bracelets, drones, software, and other elements of the surveillance festival open in Russia have to work,” said Agora lawyer Damir Gaynutdinov, commenting on the report. 

Agora concluded that although certain restrictions can be justified in the context of the unprecedented crisis the coronavirus pandemic created, these restrictions should be only temporary and subject to public scrutiny. According to the authors of the report, clearly formulated legal acts should regulate any and all kinds of surveillance, and the collection of information about the private lives of specific individuals should not only be authorized by court decisions on a case-by-case basis, but also be limited to a specific time period.

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Summary by Grigory Levchenko

Translation by Eilish Hart 

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