The Kremlin is perfecting digital tools against citizens who dare to protest the government
Violent police crackdowns are not the only tactic protesters in Russia can expect, as they have also been subject to an increasing use of digital technologies as tools for intimidation.
As protests ebbed and flow in the lead-up to Russian municipal elections in August, law enforcement authorities detained — and, indeed, continue to detain — protesters for participating in pro-democracy rallies. The use of an aggressive police force is an old tactic for Russian authorities, however, and protesters use of cellular services and social media presented a growing challenge that old tactics alone could not control.
When thousands of demonstrators took to the Moscow streets in August, authorities exerted pressure on mobile phone operators to cut data transmission in the protest area in order to hamper coordination among the protesters. In addition, the Moscow government fortified the city’s video surveillance system within the area, by adding more cameras with facial recognition. Russian authorities also threatened to enforce punitive measures against foreign companies — specifically, YouTube and its parent company, Google — if they continued to allow media to broadcast footage from protests on their platforms. These measures reinforced the Russian government’s reputation for digital authoritarianism and significantly undermined the human rights situation in the country.
Cellular data disruptions
On August 3, protesters experienced a sudden disruption in cellular mobile internet connections, with the 3G, 4G, and LTE network connections of Russia’s main mobile operators (Rostelecom, VimpelCom, and Megaphone, among others) being temporarily disabled, thereby preventing people from using social networks to post updates and livestream the protests. As some protesters reported, police also ordered cafes and restaurants located in the vicinity of the protests to turn off their Wi-Fi connections. The internet monitoring group NetBlocks confirmed that an internet shutdown occurred in Moscow that day.
Russian mobile operators VimpelCom and Megaphone claimed the concentration of a large crowd of people in a limited space led to an overload of existing mobile networks, causing a temporary internet disruption. The available evidence, however, suggested an alternative explanation: Russian authorities had pushed mobile operators to disable data transmission in order to prevent protest coordination.
The Internet Protection Society (IPS), an independent non-governmental organization in Russia that fights against internet censorship, obtained a list of disconnected mobile base stations, which belong to one of the Russian mobile operators, and the IPS marked the locations of these stations on the map. The DFRLab compared it with the map of protests held on August 3 and found out that base stations were concentrated in the same area as where the protests took place, which makes it unlikely that the relatively low population density of the protest could disrupt the signal across the board.
On August 6, BBC Russian published a letter from an unspecified mobile service provider that admitted the base stations in the city center were disabled at the request of law enforcement. Russian law does not allow mobile operators to disclose the reason for disabling the mobile network if the order to do so was given by the Federal Security Service.
On August 3, the protests drew an estimated 10,000 people and the mobile internet was disrupted over 13 square kilometers (over 3,200 acres) surrounding the protest area. By contrast, Russian journalist Kogershin Sagieva was perfectly able to make Skype calls and cover a barbecue festival live in Moscow Gorky Park on the same day — despite the fact that the festival gathered 30 times as many people in a much smaller area (about 120 hectares, or 300 acres). This cast into question the claim that the high crowd concentration at the protests caused the internet disruption.
Enhanced facial recognition system
In May 2019, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin pledged to install 200,000 facial recognition cameras throughout Moscow in an effort to create “one of the largest recognition systems in the world, which can compete with the Chinese [surveillance] system.” As a means of taking on the ongoing protests, Hong Kong police have actively used Chinese facial recognition technology to identify and crackdown on protesters. In response, the protesters have cut down facial recognition towers and used lasers to blind the cameras.
Facial recognition cameras can analyze video in real time and enable identification of individuals in a crowd. Law enforcement authorities can simply upload an individual’s photo into the system and find out where that person is, as well as reconstruct the individual’s movements within the city.
On September 6, the Moscow Department of Information Technology (DIT) awarded a ₽260 million RUB ($4 million USD) contract to Sitronics Tech to install facial recognition cameras throughout the city for monitoring mass events, including protests. Deputy Head of DIT Aleksandr Gorbatko explained that DIT had previously conducted video surveillance of public gatherings only in special circumstances; the new cameras, however, will allow ongoing video surveillance of all public events and introduce facial recognition technology into the surveillance system. Moreover, Head of Russia’s state defense industry conglomerate Rostec Sergei Chemezov argued that Moscow policemen will be equipped with Augmented Reality facial-recognition glasses in 2020. These glasses will allow them to scan faces in a crowd and find them in database.
Video footage on YouTube emerged showing that facial recognition cameras had been installed on metal detectors at the entrance to the protest area and, separately, on nearby electricity poles. A facial recognition system was also used to identify Sergei Abanichev, a demonstrator who threw a paper cup at police during the July 27 protests. Abanichev was charged with fomenting a riot in Moscow, although eventually police dropped the charges and let him go.
The Moscow government also uses mobile cameras installed on cars. Mobile cameras are more affordable than stationary cameras, as well as more convenient during protests, during which people often move from one location to another.
While police actively use facial recognition cameras to track down protesters, they do not use them to monitor the behavior of security forces during protests. In fact, such monitoring is actively discouraged; Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs reportedly ordered police officers to remove photos from social media that could be used to identify policemen who participated in counter-protest actions.
Russia’s federal legislation does not regulate the use of facial recognition by law enforcement and prohibits the processing of a Russian citizen’s biometric data without his or her written consent. Alena Popova, a human right activist from Moscow, filed a lawsuit asking the court to outlaw the installation and use of facial recognition cameras by the government, as it violates citizens’ constitutional right of privacy (Articles 23 and 24 of the Russian Constitution). Roskomsvoboda, an independent non-governmental organization that fights against internet censorship, called on the Moscow government to introduce a moratorium on the use of facial recognition systems. Meanwhile, Russian law prohibits using “masks, disguises, and other objects specially designed to make it difficult to establish an identity” during rallies and demonstrations.
Russia’s communications watchdog targets Google and Youtube
On August 10, yet another round of protests took place in Moscow. Unlike the previous rallies, Moscow City Hall issued a permit for the protests on that day. An estimated 50,000 people participated, and multiple Russian and international media outlets livestreamed the demonstrations via YouTube.
On August 11, the Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor demanded that Google (YouTube’s parent company) cease allowing users on YouTube to promote “illegal mass events” in Russia. The letter stated that “certain entities with YouTube channels purchased advertising tools (such as ‘push notifications’) in order to spread information about unauthorized (illegal) mass events… even users who do not have a subscription to the YouTube channels of those entities receive push notifications from them.” Roskomnadzor claimed that, if Google failed to comply, Russia would regard it as interference into its sovereign affairs aimed at obstructing democratic elections and take requisite action. The Russian government, however, has little control over the actions of foreign companies online. The recently enacted “sovereign internet” law, however, is the Kremlin’s remedy to this lack of control and will allow the government to restrict access to content and websites it deems to be a threat.
Russian authorities have not presented any evidence against YouTube to support their allegations. An example of the offending content, however, circulated online — it was a YouTube video advertisement (not push-notification) titled, “Everyone to the rally!”
Google did not publicly respond to the letter from Russian authorities. Buying a push notification, however, is not technically possible on YouTube. Anyone can buy an advertisement and target the audience based on geographic location, age, interests, and other factors, but users do not have the option to purchase push notifications that recommend that other users watch a specific video. The YouTube algorithm can only recommend that users watch certain videos from another channel based on their previous viewing history. Furthermore, smartphone owners can enable or disable the option to receive push notifications of recommended videos.
Despite the unsubstantiated nature of the claims, narratives about YouTube’s “wrongdoing” grabbed headlines in Russia:
The recent Moscow protests seem to have spurred the Russian government to bolster its digital authoritarian tendencies. The disruption of mobile internet during the rallies constituted an unlawful attempt to block digital mobilization tools. Freedom House latest report confirmed that internet freedom in Russia continues to decline and network shutdowns coupled with the adoption of the “sovereign internet” law will only exacerbate this negative trend.
Russia’s increasing reliance on surveillance technology can jeopardize the citizens’ freedom of assembly in Russia and current trends may lead to an imposition of total control through intimidation and threats of incarceration. Additionally, more than half of Russian citizens do not trust law enforcement officials, which contributes to their concerns that their personal data collected through surveillance technology can be misused or disclosed.
Finally, the Russian government is submitting an increasing number of content removal requests to Google, a majority of which were submitted on the grounds of protecting Russia’s “national security.” The Kremlin’s recent attacks on Google and YouTube dovetail with the its broader allegations about foreign interference in Russia’s domestic affairs.
All of these factors indicate the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive and provocative approach to internet technology and its possible application for controlling a populace.
Givi Gigitashvili is Research Assistant, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.
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