For most of Putin’s authoritarian rule, Russians could enjoy the fruits of globalization like smartphones and social media and be pretty much on their own — as long as they stayed out of politics. Seven months into the brutal war in Ukraine, the Russian military is losing ground to a surprise Ukrainian counteroffensive, and opponents of the war feel emboldened enough to call for Putin’s resignation. But the regime is playing a long game, and today every Russian is at greater risk of being surveilled, tracked and arrested simply for liking the wrong social media post.
While the invasion was met with near universal condemnation, sanctions and unrest in the country, the Russian government arrested and detained more than 16,000 people for opposing the war. Then he focused on expanding his toolbox to stifle national dissent. Authorities have blacklisted and blocked more than 7,000 websites, banned Meta (aka Facebook) for suspected extremist activity, and fined Telegram about $178,000 for failing to remove content about Ukraine.
Attacking popular platforms like Facebook and anti-regime websites are not new phenomena in Russia. But the war has accelerated the pace of digital surveillance, which in turn enables far-reaching political repressions. While Russian authorities may not have the technical ability to predict “undesirable” social behavior from a single post, they are certainly working on it – and the world should pay attention.
In March, the Russian parliament passed a series of bills imposing administrative and criminal liability and prison terms of up to 15 years for spreading false news, or “fakes,” about the Russian armed forces. Of the 236 criminal cases currently opened against Russian citizens for opposing the war in Ukraine, 80 are being prosecuted under the “false” law.
“The main purpose of the ‘forgery’ law is to ensure that only the government’s official position on socially important issues remains in public discourse,” said Stanislav Seleznev, attorney at the Net Freedoms Project, a special project of Agora International Human Rights. Band.
A joint analysis by Net Freedoms and BBC News Russia found that more than 55% of criminal cases opened under the law target ordinary citizens, as opposed to Russian journalists, activists and opposition figures who have long been lagging behind. object of prosecution. Among those accused of having “publicly and knowingly disseminated false information” about the armed forces this time include three pensioners, three police officers, two students, a teacher, a doctor and a priest.
One of the first to be prosecuted was a grandmother from Seversk who criticized the authorities on her Telegram channel. A Barnaul history teacher had to pay around $500 for reacting to anti-war posts on Odnoklassniki (a Russian social network) with sad emojis. Fortunately, he got off with an administrative fine, not a criminal trial.
“It’s a trend with social media, getting arrested for likes. Looks like with the invasion it’s escalating in Russia,” said Natalia Krapiva, technology legal counsel at Access Now. The future. “Ordinary people – not just activists, but anyone who says something moderate against the war or likes something the government doesn’t like – they are at greater risk.”
The bulk of criminal cases under the “forgeries” law were opened in March and April, when anti-war sentiments were high. But that has changed. Public willingness to openly oppose the war has dwindled with just 9% of Russians willing to attend a protest, down from around 20% six months ago. (It should be noted that, of course, it is difficult to find or collect unbiased polling data in Russia, especially since the start of the war.) But staying off the streets is not enough to escape targeted surveillance .
In June, Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry unveiled plans to spend about $265 million to deploy “Safe City” facial recognition technology in three regions bordering Ukraine. Safe City appeared in Moscow in 2020 with cameras installed in metro and train stations to scan crowds against a database of wanted individuals. (In Moscow, you can even use your face to pay for your ride.) Since the invasion, Access Now has heard reports of people being detained in the Moscow metro in connection with their war-related social media posts. . The evidence is anecdotal, but it suggests facial recognition tools are being used to identify and track critics of the regime.
Russian security services have a history of weaponizing public safety technology for overtly political purposes, such as harassing supporters of imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny. But security ministries have now gone further to exploit a wealth of personal data collected across the country. In 2020, the Department of the Interior allocated $3.9 million to integrate regional data collection systems into a centralized federal database containing biometrics, police records, and other personal data.
The project was scrapped in July due to disagreements with the developer, but it shows a willingness to create “a honeypot of all data in one place,” a terrifying prospect, Krapiva says. Such a database means local and federal law enforcement can more easily monitor and harass people based on arbitrary characteristics, such as Ukrainian citizenship. Additionally, Russia has a notorious reputation for having weak security measures to protect personal data, leading to data leaks and the sale of data.
According to a 2022 report by Net Freedoms on political profiling, ending this project is only a temporary setback. Russia has a host of additional surveillance tools. For example, a private company, SEUSLAB, has registered a database that tracks social media users who are active during periods of peak protest activity and collects information about their friends, posts, shares and comments. Security services have used this tool since 2019 to identify “socially dangerous” content. The report concludes that there is no reason to assume that the Russian authorities have abandoned their plan to create a comprehensive surveillance and profiling system.
This grim prediction is confirmed. Last month, Roskomnadzor, the Russian internet regulator known for its brutal censorship, signed a contract worth around $886,000 with a private company to develop “Oculus”, a neural network system that analyzes images, videos and text on social media and messaging platforms for flag content prohibited by Russian law. Experts are skeptical that $886,000 is enough to get this system up and running by the announced December deadline.
krapiva said The future that even before the 2022 invasion, Russia likely lacked the technological and financial capability to implement AI-based predictive policing. New sanctions and the exodus of Western companies will further hamper Russia’s progress. But Russia’s protracted efforts to bolster its technological arsenal demonstrate a clear commitment to using modern surveillance tools to increase its capacity for targeted repression.
Sophisticated tools, from facial recognition to predictive profiling, are not a magic bullet for ensuring total control over a country’s population. But, Krapiva says, where Russia fails technologically, it makes up for it with traditional espionage methods like physical surveillance and social engineering. These tactics have proven effective in tracking down and poisoning Navalny in 2021.
“That doesn’t mean we should just sit back and wait for things to not work, for things to break,” Krapiva says. “If we look at how governments use the kinds of technologies that give them more control, they tend to adopt them, and there’s this mission creep. Even in democratic states, let alone in countries like Russia.
An algorithm that can accurately predict your protest potential based on your use of emojis or the types of posts you comment under is unlikely to yield accurate results. But in an authoritarian country like Russia, omnipotent technology doesn’t need to work perfectly — just well enough to remind Russians that they’re still being watched.
This piece was originally published on Future, a partnership between Slate magazine, Arizona State University and New America.