When Yekaterina Maksimova can’t be late, the journalist and activist avoids taking the Moscow subway, even though it’s probably the most efficient route.

That’s because, in the past year, she has been stopped five times thanks to a ubiquitous security camera system with facial recognition. She recounts police telling her that the cameras “reacted” to her passing, though they often didn’t seem to understand why and let her go after a few hours.

“It seems I’m in some kind of database,” says Maksimova, who has been arrested twice before: in 2019 after participating in a demonstration in Moscow and a year later for her environmental activism.

For many Russians like her, it is increasingly difficult to avoid scrutiny by the authorities, with the government actively monitoring social media accounts and employing security cameras against activists.

Even a platform once praised by users for facilitating bureaucratic tasks is being employed as a tool of control: the authorities plan to use it to notify the draft, thwarting a popular tactic among those who want to dodge the draft to avoid having their paperwork delivered in person.

Activists argue that under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has harnessed digital technology to track, censor and control the population, building what some call a “cyber gulag,” an obscure reference to the labor camps where political prisoners were locked up in Soviet times.

Russia’s Online Crackdown: Tightening Controls and Surging Censorship

The Kremlin’s apparent indifference to digital surveillance appeared to change after mass protests in 2011 and 2012, which were coordinated online, led authorities to tighten controls.

Some regulations allowed them to block websites and others forced cell phone and internet operators to store call and message logs, to share the information with security services if necessary. The authorities put vain pressure on companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook to store their users’ data on Russian servers and announced plans to build a “sovereign internet” that, if necessary, could be isolated from the rest of the world.

At the time, many experts called these efforts futile, and some still appear ineffective. The Russian measures may seem no more than a mere fence compared to the great Chinese firewall, but the Kremlin’s online crackdown has gained momentum.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, online censorship and prosecution for social media posts and comments surged to such an extent that it broke all existing records.

According to Net Freedoms, a leading internet rights advocacy group, more than 610,000 cybersites were blocked or removed by authorities in 2022, the annual record in 15 years, and 779 people were charged for comments and posts, another record.

A major factor was a law adopted a week after the invasion that criminalizes anti-war sentiment, Net Freedoms President Damir Gainutdinov said. It also prohibits the “dissemination of false information” or “discrediting” the military, so it is used against those who publicly oppose the war.

Human Rights Watch cited another 2022 law that allows authorities to “extrajudicially shut down media outlets and block internet content for disseminating ‘false information’ about the conduct of the Russian Armed Forces or other state agencies abroad or for spreading calls for sanctions against Russia.”

Escalating Online Repression: Russia’s Crackdown on Social Media and the Rise of AI Surveillance

Strict anti-extremism laws passed in 2014 targeted social networks and online messaging, resulting in hundreds of criminal cases for posting texts, sharing and supporting them. Most affected users of the popular Russian platform VKontakte, which allegedly collaborates with the authorities.

As the crackdown increased, authorities set their sights also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram. About a week after the invasion, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were blocked but their users were still being reported.

Marina Novikova, 65, was convicted this month in the Siberian city of Seversk for “spreading false information” about the military in anti-war messages on Telegram, and fined the equivalent of more than $12,400. A Moscow court last week sentenced activist Mikhail Kriger to seven years in prison for Facebook comments in which he expressed a desire “to hang” Putin. Famous blogger Nika Belotserkovskaya, who lives in France, received a nine-year sentence in absentia for Instagram posts about the war that, according to authorities, spread “falsehoods” about the military.

“Users of any social media platform should not feel safe,” Gainutdinov said.

Rights advocates worry that online censorship is about to be drastically expanded through artificial intelligence systems that comb networks and websites for content deemed illegal.

Government media regulator Roskomnadzor announced in February the launch of Oculus, an AI system that searches for banned content in online photos and videos, and can analyze more than 200,000 images per day, compared to 200 for humans.

Two other similar systems under development will focus on text.

In February, the daily Vedomosti quoted an unidentified Roskomnadzor official as lamenting the “unprecedented amount and speed of propagation of falsehoods” about the war. The official also cited extremist statements, calls for protests and “LGBT propaganda” among the banned content that will be identified by the new systems.

Activists say it is difficult to know whether the new systems work and to what extent they are effective. Darbinyan describes them as “something horrible,” leading to “more censorship,” amid a total lack of transparency about their operation and regulation.

Authorities may also be working on a system of bots that collect information on social networks, messaging apps and closed online communities, said the Belarusian hacktivist group Cyberpartisans, which obtained documentation from a Roskomnadzor affiliate.

Yuliana Shametavets, coordinator of Cyberpartisans, told The Associated Press that such state-created automated systems are expected to infiltrate Russian-language social networking groups for surveillance and propaganda work.

“Now it’s normal to laugh at Russians, to say they have old weapons and don’t know how to fight, but the Kremlin is very good at disinformation campaigns and there are high-level computer experts who create extremely effective and very dangerous products,” she said.

Government regulator Roskomnadzor did not respond to requests for comment.

Mass Surveillance: The Pervasive Reach of Facial Recognition Technology in Russia

Between 2017 and 2018, Moscow authorities installed a system of street cameras enabled with facial recognition technology.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, authorities were able to locate and fine those violating quarantines.

That same year, Russian media reported that schools would also have such systems. Vedomosti said they would not be connected to the facial recognition system dubbed “Orwell,” after the British author of the dystopian novel “1984” and his “Big Brother,” the all-seeing character.

When protests began over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2021, the system was used to locate and arrest attendees, sometimes weeks later. After Putin announced in September last year a partial mobilization of men to fight in Ukraine, it apparently helped authorities catch evaders.

One man who was detained in the Moscow subway after failing to show up for a roll call claimed police told him that the facial recognition system had alerted to his presence, said his wife, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

In 2022, “Russian authorities expanded their control over people’s biometric data, collecting it even from banks, and used facial recognition technology to monitor and persecute activists,” Human Rights Watch reported this year.

Maksimova, the activist repeatedly stopped on the subway, filed a lawsuit to appeal the arrests but lost. Authorities claimed that because she had been detained before, police had the right to hold her for an “informal conversation,” in which officers explain to a citizen their “moral and legal responsibilities.”

Maksimova claims that the officers refused to explain to her why she was in their surveillance databases, calling it a state secret. She and her lawyer appealed the court ruling.

There are 250,000 surveillance cameras with such software on the streets of Moscow: at the entrance to residential buildings, on public transport and on the streets, Darbinyan said. St. Petersburg and other large cities, such as Novosibirsk and Kazan, have similar systems, he added.

He believes the authorities want to set up “a network of cameras all over the country. It seems a titanic task, but there are possibilities and funds.”

The Emergence of a Digital Totalitarian State: Russia’s State System of Surveillance and Coercion

In November, Putin ordered the government to create an online registry of people eligible for military service after efforts to mobilize 300,000 men to fight in Ukraine revealed a huge mess in enlistment records.

The registry, promised to be ready in the fall, will collect everything “from outpatient clinics to courthouses, tax offices and election commissions,” said political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya in a recent commentary for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

This will allow authorities to deliver summonses electronically through a government website that is used to apply for official documents such as passports or land titles. Once the summons appears on the platform, recipients will not be able to leave the country. If the summons is not heeded within 20 days, whether it has been seen or not, further restrictions will be imposed such as a driving license suspension or a ban on buying or selling property.

Stanovaya believes these restrictions could be extended to other aspects of life in Russia as the government “builds a state system of total digital surveillance, coercion and punishment.” For example, a law passed in December forces cab companies to share their databases with the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB, giving it access to trip dates, routing and payment.

“The cyber gulag, which was actively talked about during the pandemic, is taking real shape now,” Stanovaya wrote.

Categorized in: