Moscow is expanding its use of face recognition technology

The Bell

What happened

Russian authorities continue to adopt the Chinese model of tracking citizens. Moscow City Hall promises to install a system of CCTV cameras in the city in 2019 with facial recognition technology. To date, $120 million has already been spent on this system. The first experiments with the technology were carried out during opposition protests.

  • The first 1,500 cameras with facial recognition technology were tested by the mayor’s office in 2017. As the IT department of the city of Moscow learned, the experiment primarily used “street cameras to provide security during mass protests”. They were used for the first time during protests led by Alexey Navalny on 12 June 2017. After this, the photos and personal data of participants in the protest were published by an anonymous blogger and made openly available on the internet. Then, the cameras with facial recognition technology were tested during the World Cup in 2018. The police described 180 people at the time who were wanted by the authorities. Police officers were given smartphones which received notifications when the cameras identified faces matching those on wanted persons notices.
  • The technology FindFace was used in the experiments; it was developed by the Russian company, NTechLab. The company’s investors include billionaire Roman Abramovich and state-owned Rostec, as well as former partners of internet businessman Alexey Goreslavsky who has, since 2017, worked for the Presidential Administration. The company’s first well known project was the FindFace service which allows for searches using photos from social media profiles. In June 2018, NtechLab announced that it was closing the service for private users, explaining that the company is focusing on developing products for government and corporate use. According to a company representative, the service identifies individuals from photographs with 95% accuracy.
  • The CEO of NTechLab, Mikhail Ivanov, with whom The Bell spoke, says that the company’s portfolio of clients is now divided 50/50 between state and private corporate clients. He said that the government does not ask the company to analyze the data of opposition protest attendees or of other dissenters: “We are developing principal solutions which allow to identify people in streams or databases. And none of these streams or databases belong to us,” he said.

Why the world should care

Russian officials traditionally copy their technological solutions from the Chinese, but Russia still doesn’t have internet censorship, nor a system for monitoring citizens’ activities as in China. The reason is the nonexistence of total government control, and Russian corruption (one of the earlier Moscow video surveillance systems had fake cameras), as well as in the shortcomings of technology (the best example of this is the unsuccessful attempt to block Telegram). But in facial recognition technology, Russian companies are global leaders.

Support The Bell!

The Bell's Newsletter

An inside look at the Russian economy and politics. Exclusively in your inbox every week.