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The pylons have ears Moscow allocates roughly $2 million for a new traffic-monitoring system that will capture the MAC-address from your mobile device

Source: Kommersant
Mikhail Tereshchenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

In its efforts to manage and monitor the flow of human beings through the city, Moscow officials have experimented with mobile apps, QR codes, and telephone hotlines. Many of these systems have confused the elderly, overwhelmed operators, and frustrated virtually everyone. According to a new public contract reported in the Russian news media, the capital now plans to invest in a less intrusive technology that silently tracks traffic flows by logging background connections with random mobile devices. Meduza summarizes a new report by the newspaper Kommersant.

Moscow’s Traffic Organization Center (TsODD) is spending 155.3 million rubles (almost $2 million) on a new system to monitor traffic flows in the capital, according to the newspaper Kommersant, which discovered the city’s public procurement order. A company called “Information Technologies of the Future” won the government contract, but the deal has been put on hold due to complaints about violations in the bidding process. 

Within six months, the authorities want to equip 220 bus-stops and city-navigation pylons around Moscow with hardware and software systems capable of collecting MAC-addresses from mobile devices’ through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi inside a radius of 50 meters (164 feet). These systems would generate reports about an individual device’s movements over the past hour, day, week, month, and year. These data would be downloaded to a single storage center managed by Moscow’s Information Technology Department.

The project is modeled on practices already implemented in Singapore, London, and Berlin. The new system in Moscow is designed to “maximize the quality of pedestrian traffic and the operation of city transportation,” TsODD officials told Kommersant, stressing that the capture of MAC-addresses won’t involve the collection of personal data. Alexander Sigachev, a network-solutions expert at the I.T. company “Croc,” confirmed to the newspaper that devices’ MAC-addresses are in no way connected to owners’ identities. 

Similar computer systems analyze traffic flows by time and direction in order to generate targeted marketing, says “InfoWatch Group” analytics head Andrey Arsenyev. “For example, you can use the network to send messages about sales and discounts at specific stores to someone visiting a shopping center,” he explained. Ilya Tikhonov, a spokesperson for the information security department at “Softline,” told Kommersant that MAC-address information makes it possible to determine how often certain groups of people visit certain stores.

Other systems throughout Moscow, like subway turnstiles and outdoor surveillance cameras, are already collecting passenger traffic data. The authorities can also obtain information about people’s movements from telecommunications operators, though these data don’t precisely identify the specific locations someone visits, a source told Kommersant, adding that Moscow’s new system will allow the Mayor’s Office to learn detailed information independently about the movements of pedestrians and passengers. 

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are always running on 30 percent of all smartphones, an analyst at a major I.T. company that develops big-data technologies told Kommersant. At the same time, users can change their MAC-addresses and automated systems can randomize the addresses for every new wireless connection, according to Artem Kulakov, the director of Android operations at the mobile developer “Redmadrobot.”

Stanislav Seleznev, a legal analyst and attorney at the “Agora” human rights group, says Moscow’s plan to monitor traffic flows by tracking MAC-addresses is largely in step with the Council of Europe’s declaration in April 2020 on data protection in contact tracing during the coronavirus pandemic, though Seleznev has concerns about the security of Moscow’s data storage.

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Summary by Olga Korelina

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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