MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) – Officials hailed Moscow’s massive facial recognition camera network as a benign aid to residents that would enforce quarantine restrictions, catch criminals and even let them pay subway fares.
Now it’s being deployed to crush dissent against President Vladimir Putin.
Police tapped the surveillance system to identify and detain dozens of people who attended last week’s protests in the Russian capital in support of jailed Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny.
More than 50 were picked up over the following days, including several journalists, according to OVD-Info, an independent human rights monitoring group that gathers information on detentions.
Ms Anna Borzenko, 65, was held overnight in a cell after going to police when she learned officers had been to her apartment seeking to question her.
“I was an experiment in the development of a total surveillance system,” she said. “This system will be more terrifying when it is established.”
Use of the technology adds to risks facing Russians who voice opposition to Mr Putin as the Kremlin embarks on the most far-reaching crackdown in years.
With Mr Navalny isolated in a prison outside Moscow, and physically weakened after a 24-day hunger strike, his supporters are facing relentless legal actions to prevent them from organising against the authorities.
Investigations are even extending to lawyers and doctors providing professional assistance to opposition activists, a new development that’s further chilling dissent ahead of key parliamentary elections in September.
“The authorities are changing their tactics: they’ve become smarter, more repressive and more selective,” said Ms Tatyana Stanovaya, the founder of political consultancy R.Politik.
“Participants are tracked through security cameras, facial recognition systems, social media activity, and phone billing.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday (April 30) denied there was a broad crackdown, saying that moves against activists were isolated incidents.
While the use of facial recognition technology is more widespread in China, which has created a vast surveillance system to monitor the Uighur population in its Xinjiang region, the Kremlin has stepped up efforts to stamp out opposition since Mr Putin pushed through constitutional changes last year that allow him to remain in power potentially till 2036.
The campaign is taking place as the President’s popularity with Russians sputters after a decade of stagnating incomes.
Others summoned for questioning after being identified with the aid of Moscow’s more than 100,000 cameras include photographer Alexander Grebeshkov, 65-year-old university professor Alexander Agadzhanyan, and reporters from TV Rain, Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, Echo of Moscow radio station, RTVi and the Meduza website, according to OVD-Info.
The moves against protesters come amid heightened tensions with the US and Europe over Ukraine and last year’s near-fatal chemical poisoning of Navalny in Siberia that he and western governments blamed on Russia.
The Kremlin denies responsibility and has accused Navalny of working on behalf of the US.
“The monopoly on fighting the opposition has moved from the Kremlin’s political bloc to the security services,” former Kremlin official Alexey Chadayev said.
Law enforcement around the country has also targeted rank-and-file protesters, detaining about 1,800 people at last week’s protests in support of Navalny, which the authorities labelled illegal.
Moscow police had seemed initially to use a soft touch, arresting only 48 people on the night, a fraction of the number they detained at previous protests this year and fewer than those held in smaller regional cities like Sochi and Barnaul.
However, the city’s camera network equipped with facial recognition software meant police could track protesters back to their homes, where OVD-Info said most detentions took place.
“They use various techniques but they have one goal: intimidation,” said Mr Mikhail Biryukov, a lawyer who represents several of the detained, including Ms Borzenko.
“Creating uncertainty over when they might come for you can be a better deterrent than using violence.”