25.05.2021 – 09:36
On April 21, as allies of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny warned that his life was in grave danger after entering a three-week hunger strike, protesters gathered in cities across Russia. By the end of the day, only a few dozen people had been arrested in Moscow.
But days later, police began showing up at the homes of dozens of protesters and journalists who had covered the event, which was deemed illegal by Russian authorities. They were identified by the Moscow network of 200,000 face recognition cameras, which is thought to be one of the largest networks in the world outside of China. According to Amnesty International, some of the activists and journalists were arrested immediately, while others were called to police stations.
“I consider it a form of psychological pressure,” said Oleg Ovcharenko, a journalist with the independent radio station Echo of Moscou. Police appeared in his home six days after the protest. Despite wearing a vest and a press badge at the protest, Ovcharenko had to go to a police station to prove he was covering up the event for work.
Last month’s bans marked the first time the surveillance network, which opened in January last year, had been used on a scale to record dozens of peaceful protesters and journalists in the wake of a demonstration. It comes amid an accelerated crackdown on independent media, civil society and social media in Russia, in a bid to remove the prospect of dissent ahead of the September parliamentary elections and as ratings for approval by Russian President Vladimir Putin continue to plummet.
As advanced surveillance technology increasingly becomes part of the toolkit for authoritarian governments, they often rely silently on components made by Western technology companies. Although Moscow facial recognition cameras are not subject to export controls or sanctions, their use underscores ethical and logistical challenges for companies and governments seeking to prevent Western technology from enabling human rights abuses as policies try to move forward. with the step of technological development.
“On the one hand, Western politicians talk about human rights abuses in Russia and China, but Western companies are involved in building these systems, especially in Russia,” said Leonid Kovachich, a Chinese-based technology observer and specialist. in Moscow.
The secret to any face recognition network is the algorithm that is able to match the faces captured on the camera with a large amount of biometric data, and this is the kind of technology that the Russian authorities want to keep in constant use.
“The Russian government thinks that algorithms are a very sensitive area. “So to prevent foreign governments from building backdoors, they use internal algorithms,” Kovachich said.
The Moscow camera network is mainly powered by an algorithm created by NtechLab. Manufactured by Russia, NtechLab’s powerful algorithm has the stamp of approval of the American intelligence community.
In 2017, NtechLab won an open face recognition challenge competition held by Advanced Research Projects Intelligence (IARPA).
While the competition does not imply any relationship between participants and American intelligence, NtechLab CEO Mikhail Ivanov told Nextgov in 2017 that he hoped the award publicity would help boost the company’s ability to win further contracts and win first place. in the competition IARPA is prominently displayed on its website.
The Yitu artificial intelligence also won an award from IARPA that same year for its ability to match a face to a specific identity. In 2019, Yitu was blacklisted by the U.S. Department of Commerce on national security concerns and has been, according to the New York Times, involved in developing tools to enable the Chinese government to identify and track members of the Uighur ethnic group, who have been persecuted and imprisoned en masse in China’s Xinjiang region.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement that such challenges are intended to help the agency better understand the state of the game in relation to a specific area of technology. “They are open to participation from anyone who is willing to voluntarily submit their technology to be independently verified with rigorous testing and evaluation. “Challenge prices do not signal the government’s recommendation or approval of challenge presentations and their related activities or products,” the spokesman said.
While the risks of engaging with Russian and Chinese entities in such sensitive technology may be apparent now, the IARPA award is evidence of how quickly the landscape has changed, said Eileen Donahoe, executive director of the Global Digital Incubator at Global University at Stanford.
“It was a different moment. “There was still a sense that the best and brightest in the world should work together to advance science,” said Donahoe, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council during the Obama administration.
As Russia increasingly seeks to disengage Western technology, especially when it comes to sensitive systems involved in national security, domestic companies are not yet able to fully replace their European and American counterparts. This is especially true when it comes to the tools required to store and process the colossal amounts of data collected by facial recognition cameras in Moscow.
It is difficult to determine exactly which western products have been used and in what quantities. Two procurement contracts published in late 2019 for computing equipment to support Moscow’s video analysis system list many products from California-based companies Intel and Nvidia in the technical requirements that accompany the contracts. Russian media reported that these contracts were to support the city network of face recognition cameras.
Kovachich said the systems would struggle to function without parts made by the west. “Maybe in the future, but for now even China can not completely replace the western parts,” he said in a message to Foreign Policy.
An Intel spokesman said: “While we do not always know nor can we control what products our customers create or the end-user applications they develop, Intel does not endorse or tolerate our products being used to infringe human rights. When we become aware of a concern that Intel products are being used by a business partner in connection with human rights abuses, we will limit or terminate the business with a third party until we have high confidence that Intel products are not are being used to violate human rights. ”
A spokesman for Nvidia said the company does not offer applications for surveillance or facial recognition. “We require our customers to comply with all U.S. laws, including export control regulations and associated end-use restrictions, and we do not condone misuse of technology. “Because we make general-purpose platforms and sell them to distributors, we can not control where they end up, or how they will be used,” the spokesman said.
While neither Intel nor Nvidia has contracted directly with Moscow, the agreements underscore how even neutral technologies such as servers and GPUs could end up in systems used to abuse human rights a few steps down the supply chain, create headaches for companies and policymakers.
“These are definitely the kinds of uses that American companies should not support,” said Lindsay Gorman, a technology associate at the Alliance for Democracy. “Even for a company, it can be very difficult to understand exactly where their technology ends up.”
With technology playing an increasingly important role in both human rights abuses and strategic competition, academic institutions, government agencies, and multinational corporations face a growing body of consideration as they seek to foster cooperation. international while preventing the wrong hands.
This is a risk to which companies are increasingly aware. “You see a growing marriage of rigorous review of the reputable compliance program and future risk planning. These two things are becoming much more closely linked these days, ”said Kerry Contini, an international trade practice partner at law firm Baker McKenzie.
After a rehearsal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and anti-government protests next year, Moscow face recognition cameras were first fully deployed in early 2020 and put to use to identify quarantines that break the rules during coronavirus. NtechLab is working with Russian authorities to pilot similar networks in 10 other Russian cities, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant.
Some experts are skeptical that technology is a game-changer for the Russian government’s ability to quell dissent, noting that it already has a well-developed arsenal of repressive tools.
“It probably makes it easier, especially in public squares in Moscow, to find out who is gathering when,” said Steven Feldstein, who served as deputy secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. in the Obama administration. “But if the question is, could not they have done this before recognizing the face? My feeling is no they already had the ability to do it. “Maybe just not so fast or so efficient.”
But the cameras are part of a package of Russia’s growing efforts to suppress free speech and peaceful protests. Authorities have passed a series of vague laws that have been used to crack down on social media. Russian authorities have relied on setting examples of some people, giving prison sentences for criticizing government policies in social media posts and memes, in what appears to be an offer to cast a shocking effect on any other criticism.
Face recognition cameras can have the same effect and can help pre-suppress protests without the need for police rioting and embarrassing images of brutality. Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said the way the cameras were used to target people in the days following Navalny’s demonstrations was intended to send a signal to anyone considering participating in a protest in the future.
“It was intended to frighten the average citizen and make them think twice before going to a peaceful rally again,” she said.
Translated and adapted by Foreign Policy / FH, Konica.al