THE BELL WEEKLY: Digital gulag

The Bell

Hello! This week we focus on Russia’s new law tightening military draft procedures that establishes a new database that many believe amounts to a “digital gulag.”

Russia takes a major step toward full militarization, online control

Beneath a veil of secrecy, lawmakers last week rammed legislation through the State Duma that now makes it almost impossible to avoid mandatory military service. It effectively bars anyone called up for military service from leaving the country and establishes a government database that will form the basis of a fully functional “digital gulag.”

What’s happening?

Six months after “partial mobilization” was announced, Russia is finally taking steps to address draft dodging. In an effort to pass the law as quickly as possible, the State Duma and Federation Council hastily approved a package of amendments to laws on electronic summons, which were developed in total secrecy. The amendments, which impose restrictions on anyone who does not wish to serve in the Armed Forces, were added to an existing law that had already passed two readings in parliament. As a result, the legislation was approved at lightning speed. The first hint of the changes came on Monday evening and by Friday, Putin had already signed the document.

  • Electronic summons will now be delivered via the Gosuslugi government portal, which is used by millions of Russians in their day-to-day interactions with public services. These electronic notices will carry the same legal weight as paper call-ups that are sent by mail. Deleting your account on Gosulugi will be of no help: an electric call-up is considered to be received seven days after it appears on a digital register.
  • As soon as a person receives a call-up notice, they are automatically banned from leaving Russia.
  • Anyone who fails to show up to a recruitment office within 20 days of receiving a call-up notice will face a number of restrictions, including a ban on registering property or vehicles (effectively making it impossible to buy real estate or a car), a ban on driving, taking out loans and an inability to register as an individual entrepreneur or as self-employed.

The objective of the law is clear. Previously, individuals who did not want to serve in the Russian army and fight in Ukraine could simply change their registered address and subsequently ignore call-up notices. Anyone who fails to report for duty after receiving an electronic summons will be in violation of the law. However, the effectiveness of this depends on the creation of a unified digital database of servicemen, as well as its integration with other digital government services. Russia’s draft system has been neglected for years, to the point where it is arguably the most technologically outdated system in the country.

When Putin announced mobilization in September, there was already a legal basis for closing Russia’s borders to anyone called to serve in the military, but there was no feasible way for authorities to do so in practice. The only way to achieve this was to manually enter names into a border services database. Creating a new database should improve this situation, but how practical is it?

New registers

The amendments outline the establishment of new official databases, including a single registry for servicemen, and another for call-up notifications.

With approximately 25 million individuals eligible for recruitment, the first register will collect personal data, including passport and tax identification numbers, current residential address and health status. This register will serve as the basis for issuing future call-ups.

To collect this information, an online system called SMEV will be used. This secure platform enables government agencies to exchange electronic documents efficiently. Using SMEV, state agencies will provide regular updates on individuals liable for military service, ensuring that the register is accurate and up-to-date. The information includes:

  • Passport details, tax identification and social benefits numbers;
  • Place of residence and current address, including anything that is different from an official registration;
  • Details of second citizenship, or right of residence in another country;
  • Information about work and employers;
  • Education records;
  • Health information;
  • Information about registration with the military enlistment office, appearance or non-appearance in response to a call-up, appeals and application of any restrictions;
  • Any other information that the government wants (i.e. not even this list is exhaustive).

While the register of servicemen does not yet exist, preparations for its creation are likely to have started in the fall of 2022 when President Vladimir Putin signed a decree requiring the Digital Development Ministry and the Federal Tax Service to develop a new database. Originally slated for an April 2024 launch, plans for the register have been expedited.

However, the minister for digital development, Maksut Shadayev, announced last week that the database won't be ready before the fall. Officials told The Bell that the work will take at least six months. While the law can still take effect, travel bans can't be fully enforced until the enlistment offices and border service databases are fully integrated.

The second database, which is a register of summons issued by the enlistment offices, is much simpler. It will be open to the public and accessible via a special individual account in the Gosuslugi system, or for those without internet access, in person.

A ‘super-database’

The operator of the new registers is not yet known publicly. Rostelecom, the state-owned communication service, is the largest contractor for developing information systems for the Digital Development Ministry. The main state online portal, Gosuslugi, which will be used to harvest much of the data for a new register, was developed by Rostelecom. However, according to a source that spoke with The Bell, the register of servicemen will not be entrusted to Rostelecom. Instead, it will be developed by one of the FSB's contractors.

The new register of servicemen is expected to be more than just a list of those eligible for recruitment into the military. According to the source, the Russian authorities want to create a ‘super database’ that holds all possible information about an individual in one place.

“It’s the old dream – bring everything together in one place. They wanted to do this a long time ago, but it never worked out because the different organizations were never eager to share their data with one another,” said the source.

In particular, there are plans to include information about bank transactions in the register, even though this information is irrelevant for military service, a source told The Bell. However, a federal official who spoke to The Bell disputed this claim, insisting it would be impossible to add personal banking information to the register of recruits without first changing existing laws. He emphasized that the primary objective of the register is to update the list of potential recruits. When enlistment offices began digitizing their data, it emerged that many potential conscripts were not registered. However, with the new law in place, all potential recruits will now be registered automatically. The official also noted that the register will exclude anyone who has the right to defer a call-up.

Russian enlistment offices are already moving ahead with digitization, a source on the Russian data black market told The Bell. Since the fall, they have been actively transferring information from paper records to electronic forms, which must be completed using information from existing files. The digitization process is largely complete in big cities, although the database itself is reportedly malfunctioning.

It remains unclear how those compiling the new register will obtain all the necessary information. For instance, the existing Gosuslugi portal does not have information on an individual's actual place of residence. Despite this, there are several potential solutions to this issue. If direct requests from enlistment offices do not provide the updated information, other reliable sources could be taxi and delivery services, as suggested by Stanislav Shakirov, the technical director of the human rights organization Roskomsvoboda. Companies are already required by law to store this information, and there is currently a draft government decree that would give the FSB access to taxi geolocation and passenger payment services directly, without requiring a court ruling.

Why the world should care

Prior to the Ukraine war, Russian officials had been discussing various issues related to public surveillance with their Chinese counterparts, but constructing a "digital gulag" was still far from a reality. Currently, Russian state agencies use over 100 different databases, some of which are interconnected — but there is no single database that can gather all information about an individual. Moreover, no state agency has the right to direct and automate access to such a database – not even FSB officers. Typically, officers need to make a formal request to other departments for information about a specific person or event. However, this new law suggests that Russia is well on its way to creating its own "digital gulag".


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