The “cyber gulag” or how the Russian government tracks, censors and controls its citizens

Even when Yekaterina Maksimova cannot be late, the journalist and activist avoids taking the Moscow metro, even though it is probably the most efficient route.

That’s because she’s been detained there five times in the past year, thanks to a ubiquitous facial-recognition security camera system. She recounts that the police told her that the cameras simply “reacted” to her passing, triggering an alert, although often the same officers did not seem to understand her motive and let her go after a few hours.

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

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

Even a platform once praised by users for facilitating bureaucratic tasks is being used as a control tool: authorities plan to use it to deliver recruitment notices, thus thwarting a popular tactic among those who want to dodge the draft, thus prevent documentation from being handed over to them 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 labor camps where it locked up political prisoners in Soviet times.

This is new territory, even for a nation with a long history of spying on its citizens.

“The Kremlin has become the de facto beneficiary of digitization and is using every opportunity for state propaganda, for surveillance of the population, for breaking the anonymity of internet users,” says Sarkis Darbinyan, legal head of Roskomsvoboda, a Russian internet freedom group that the Kremlin considers a “foreign agent”.

increased censorship

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

Some regulations allowed them to block web pages and others forced mobile phone and internet operators to store call and message logs, to share the information with security services if necessary. The authorities pressured companies like Google, Apple and Facebook to keep user data on Russian servers to no avail and announced plans to build a “sovereign internet” that could be isolated from the rest of the world if necessary.

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

Yekaterina Maksimova, detained five times, enters a metro stop in Moscow, Russia, on May 22, 2023.

Yekaterina Maksimova, detained five times, enters a metro stop in Moscow, Russia, on May 22, 2023.(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, online censorship and prosecution for posts and comments on social media took off in such a way that they broke all existing records.

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

An important factor was the law adopted a week after the invasion that penalizes anti-war sentiment, warns the president of Net Freedoms, Damir Gainutdinov. In addition, it prohibits the “spreading 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 a media outlet and block content on the internet for spreading ‘false information’ about the conduct of the Russian Armed Forces or other state agencies abroad or for spreading calls to sanction Russia.

network users should not feel safe

Strict anti-extremism laws passed in 2014 targeted social media and online messaging, leading to hundreds of criminal cases for texting, sharing and expressing support. Most affected users of the popular Russian platform VKontakte, which allegedly collaborates with the authorities.

As the repression increased, the authorities also turned their sights on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram. About a week after the invasion, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were all blocked, but their users continued to be 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 was fined the equivalent of more than $12,400. A Moscow court last week sentenced activist Mikhail Kriger to seven years in prison for comments on Facebook in which he expressed a desire to “hang” Putin. Famed blogger Nika Belotserkovskaya, who lives in France, received a nine-year sentence in absentia for Instagram posts about the war that authorities say spread “falsehoods” about the military.

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

Rights advocates are concerned that online censorship is about to be dramatically expanded through artificial intelligence systems combing networks and websites for content deemed illegal.

Government media regulator Roskomnadzor announced in February the launch of Oculus, an AI system that looks for prohibited content in online photos and videos, and can analyze more than 200,000 images a day, compared with 200 for the most humans.

Two other similar systems that are under development will focus on texts.

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

Activists say it is hard to know if the new systems are working and how effective they are. Darbinyan describes them as “a horrible thing”, leading to “more censorship”, amid a complete lack of transparency about their operation and regulation.

The authorities could also be working on a system of bots that collect information on social networks, messaging applications and closed online communities, says the Belarusian hacktivist group Cyberpartisans, which obtained documentation from a Roskomnadzor affiliate.

Yuliana Shametavets, coordinator of the Cyberpartisans, told The Associated Press that she fears such state-created automated systems will infiltrate Russian-language social media groups for surveillance and propaganda purposes.

“Now it is normal to laugh at the Russians, to say that they have old weapons and that they do not 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,” he says.

Government regulator Roskomnadzor did not respond to requests for comment.

eyes in and under the streets

Between 2017 and 2018, the Moscow authorities installed a system of cameras on the streets enabled with facial recognition technology. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, authorities were able to locate and fine those who violated quarantines.

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

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

A man who was detained on the Moscow subway after failing to attend the call-up said police told him facial recognition system had alerted him to his presence, said his wife, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear to retaliation.

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

Maksimova, the activist who is repeatedly stopped on the subway, sued to challenge the arrests, but lost. The authorities claimed that, since she had already been detained before her, the police had the right to hold her for an “informal conversation”, in which the officers explain her “moral and legal responsibilities” to a citizen.

Maksimova maintains that the agents refused to explain why she was listed in their surveillance databases, calling it a state secret. She and her attorney challenged the court ruling.

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

He believes that the authorities want to set up “a network of cameras throughout the country. It seems like a daunting task, but there are possibilities and funds”.

full digital surveillance

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

The registry, which was promised to be ready in the fall, will collect all kinds of data, “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 the subpoenas electronically through a government website used to request official documents, such as passports or land titles. Once the call appears on the platform, the recipients will not be able to leave the country. If the summons is not served within 20 days, whether it has been seen or not, other restrictions will be imposed, such as the suspension of the driver’s license or the prohibition to buy or sell 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 requires taxi companies to share their databases with the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB, giving it access to travel dates, route and payment.

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

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