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Moscow City Hall seeks to expand ‘digital profiles’ of local residents through new monitoring system

Source: Open Media
Anatloy Zhdanov / Kommersant

Moscow’s Information Technology Department has is soliciting bids to develop a system that will build detailed “digital profiles” for all users of municipal services, as well as constantly monitor the activities of Muscovites throughout the city and at municipal facilities. The website Open Media first reported the 280-million-ruble ($3.7-million) contract’s appearance. Although the system is reportedly designed to collect information anonymously, experts warn that it could include surveillance mechanisms and that abuse of the system could result in people’s personal information ending up on the black market.

The tender posted on the public procurement website outlines plans to build “digital profiles” of Moscow residents within the framework of the “information system for monitoring and analysis of Internet activity” or “IS STATS.” Among other things, these profiles will contain information on payments for services, debts, fines (for example, for traffic or parking violations), as well as information on travel documents and Social Cards.

According to the tender, the STATS system will collate this information with data gathered from public Wi-Fi access points and from telecommunications operators. It will also track “territorial bans,” “medical restrictions,” and “loyalty” (the procurement document does not specify what exactly this means). In addition, the system will take into account data from opinion polls on healthcare, education, housing and utilities, as well as public transport in certain areas of Moscow.

The system is set to collect information anonymously, meaning that it will not gather the user’s full name or place of birth. This data will then be analyzed by employees of the Moscow Mayor’s Office. The terms of reference for the tender state that the system is designed to quickly identify emerging trends, provide detailed analytics on various user actions, and be able to respond to changes in the city’s situation quickly. 

Moscow City Hall has been working on the STATS system since 2017. As Open Media notes, during the first three years the system was used to analyze the activities of mos.ru users, in order to optimize the services offered through this municipal portal. The BBC Russian Service reported previously that the system is able to take into account the gender, age, income, and marital status of users, as well as identify connections between users within a particular group — for example, grouping a husband, wife, and their children together if they all use mos.ru. 

Stanislav Shakirov, the technical director of the open communications organization Roskomsvoboda, told Open Media that having anonymous data on city residents will allow Moscow officials to plan the city’s infrastructure better, “but, obviously, such systems always include possible surveillance mechanisms and this system is no exception.” Shakirov fears that the system will collect personalized information “down to the very last citizen” and underscored the risk of this information being sold on the black market. 

Having studied the available information on Moscow City Hall’s purchase, Mikhail Braude-Zolotarev, the director of the Center for IT Research and Expertise at RANEPA, maintained that “the fears about abuse and overstepping of authority, both systemically on the part of the authorities, and on the part of individual employees” are justified. 

Moscow has had a “Smart City” program in place since 2012, which collects data that allows the authorities to monitor citizens’ movements. The citywide surveillance system relies on CCTV cameras located at the entrances of residential buildings and public spaces, as well as data from mobile operators, taxi and car sharing services, and free Wi-Fi points — including the Moscow subway system. 

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Text by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Eilish Hart

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