Inside a safe city, Moscow’s AI surveillance dystopia

10 months ago
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“From [an] from an engineering point of view, it is very interesting to work with him: it is very difficult,” he says.

After the release of FindFace, NTechLab began selling its facial recognition technology to small businesses such as shopping malls, who could use it to catch shoplifters or see how many people are returning to certain stores. But NTechLab also worked with the Moscow Department of Information Technology (DIT), the government agency tasked with building Moscow’s digital infrastructure. In 2018, when Russia was hosting the World Cup, NTechLab’s facial recognition technology was connected to more than 450 CCTV cameras throughout Moscow. reportedly helped the police detain 180 people whom the state considered “wanted criminals”.

From the start, Moscow’s facial recognition system has been fed by official watchlists, such as a database of wanted people. The system uses these lists to notify the police as soon as a person on the list is found, but law enforcement can also upload an image and find where the person appeared. According to Sarkis Darbinyan, co-founder of the digital rights group Roskomsvoboda, which campaigns to suspend the technology, over the years security and law enforcement agencies have compiled a database of political opposition leaders and prominent activists. It remains unclear who is responsible for adding activists and protesters to watchlists.

In March 2019, after a successful World Cup trial — some of Russia’s “most wanted” people were arrested while trying to attend matches — the Moscow Department of Transportation, which runs the city’s metro, launched its own surveillance system, Sphere. According to Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, by October 2019, 3,000 of the city’s 160,000 cameras were equipped with facial recognition technology.

NTechLab was one of the many companies that created many of the systems that were later called “Safe City”. International companies, from US technology firms such as Nvidia, Intel and Broadcom, to South Korean Samsung and Chinese camera maker Hikvision, have worked alongside local firms such as headpoint, NetrisAnd Rostelecom who developed various components of surveillance systems. In addition to NTechLab, VisionLabs, Tevian and Kipod have also created facial recognition technology for Moscow’s growing surveillance system. according to to the procurement documents referenced by the British BBC.

NtechLab states that it operates in accordance with local laws and does not have access to customer data or video feeds from cameras. Nvidia and Intel say they are leaving Russia in 2022, with Nvidia adding that it does not create surveillance software or algorithms. Broadcom and Samsung also say they stopped doing business in Russia after the invasion. VisionLabs claims to supply its payment system with facial recognition only to the Moscow Metro. Other companies did not respond to requests for comment. DIT and the Moscow Department of Transport did not respond to requests for comment.

In late 2018, as Russia stepped up its crackdown on political dissent online and on the streets, the DIT began to change, says a former employee who asked not to be named for security reasons. According to Andrey Soldatov, an investigative journalist and Russian intelligence expert, the department used to be just a “technical guy” assisting the security services, with the Moscow government hiring highly paid IT specialists to create the most efficient systems. But according to a former employee, DIT has begun to reflect the Kremlin’s authoritarian tendencies.

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