Damir Gainutdinov: An unhealthy transparency – how the pandemic simplifies surveillance of citizens

28 April 2020 

Damir Gainutdinov is a lawyer with the Agora International Human Rights Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: РБК]

The state now has the opportunity to test various digital surveillance technologies and people are ready to give up part of their freedom for the sake of the fight against COVID-19

The state now has the opportunity to test out various digital surveillance technologies, and people are ready to concede part of their liberties for the sake of combating COVID-19.

Even before the pandemic the authorities tried to gather as much information as possible about citizens.

To buy a SIM-card you had to show your passport; having obtained a residence permit in another country, you had to inform the Ministry of Internal Affairs; buying a ticket for a plane, a train or an international bus you once again had to provide your ID. Everyone released from prison is obliged to undergo genome registration; all those arrested and jailed under administrative law have their fingerprints taken. Our country is not unique — the right to privacy is being encroached upon all over the world: old and new democracies alike are developing ever newer means of surveillance, threatening the rights of individual citizens, undermining public trust and making the political climate worse.

The Russian courts over the last 13 years in more than 8 million instances have permitted tapping of telephone conversations, access to information about telephone connections and seizure of electronic correspondence. Internet services that refuse to give access to the security services are blocked and fined.

Formerly, of course, all this was justified on the basis of the need to combat terrorism, extremism and the activities of foreign intelligence agencies. In the last resort, it was presented as an exclusive measure or a one-off event. The Coronavirus has radically changed the situation.  

Regional variations

Now everyone has turned out to be in the high risk group, and the state authorities are not hiding that we are all under observation. They are watching every step we make. In some regions of the country citizens arriving from abroad receive a text message reminding them to go into isolation; in other regions, the Emergencies Ministry sends them a demand via their phone operator to go home. The authorities in Tatarstan have directly stated: ‘If during the course of the day you persistently leave your home, the system will register that fact and measures will be taken.’

The epidemic has provoked a ‘parade of sovereignties’: QR-codes, SMS-passes; people arriving from abroad are given questionnaires; demands that people report their movements and confirm their actual place of residence, provide photographs and comply with a requirement to submit daily reports on their health – these requirements all vary from region to region.

Tatarstan was the first to introduce digital passes for all citizens wanting to go more than 100 metres from their house. In Moscow, residents who are quarantined are fined if they go out to dump rubbish and are filmed by a camera in the entrance hall fitted with facial identification capability (the ‘Safe City’ programme came in useful) and smartphones are distributed to residents with a pre-loaded programme enabling surveillance. In Murmansk, patients being treated at home are fitted with electronic bracelets. 

In Sakhalin those arriving from abroad are photographed while fines for violating self-isolation rules are levied in a semi-automatic regime on the basis of CCTV footage. And even a partial identification on the basis of the photograph in the database is sufficient for someone to be found guilty.

The specific approaches and procedures differ between the regions, but all of them have something in common – the lack of any guarantee that citizens’ rights to privacy will be observed. The best that can be hoped for is that the authorities refer to the provisions of the Federal Law “On personal data” and at least pay lip service to the notion that the personal data that have been collected should subsequently be erased.

At the same time, de jure measures have been taken by the heads of the country’s regions to declare a state of high alert, apparently based on the Federal Law “On protection of the population and the territories against natural and man-made emergency situations”. Yet this Federal Law makes no provision for the digital surveillance of citizens, even if a state of emergency were to be declared, which – as we are well aware – has not happened, and powers of this kind are also not granted in connection with the quarantine restrictions under the Federal Law “On the sanitary and epidemiological well-being of the population”.

Life after quarantine

The situation we are currently facing makes it possible to test and compare the effectiveness “in the field” of various technologies for the surveillance of citizens. From all appearances, citizens are prepared to relinquish some of their freedoms to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and it is always possible to cite one of the many examples of similar action being taken abroad. In a recent article, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, notes that many European countries are resorting to digital technologies to help enforce quarantine orders and inform people about their possible exposure to infected individuals, and that this may be justified. Yet Mijatović emphasises that, “The health imperative must not become a carte blanche to snoop on people’s lives”.

The simple fact of the matter is that the Russian authorities now have access to ready-made technological solutions for digital surveillance and selective monitoring that could also be used in the event of protests or to restrict the movements of different groups of citizens. Individuals under police supervision might be obliged to send an SMS indicating their destinations and route whenever they leave home, for example.

There can be little doubt that many people are concerned about developments in China following the introduction of digital technologies that are used to carry out surveillance on individuals in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and to exercise control over their lives. The greatest worry is the fact that the PRC has not only been able to develop these various technologies, but has seemingly also integrated them into a single operating system. The Moscow City Government is now attempting to do exactly the same, by combining databases that were previously held separately by the police, the Department of Health, the Traffic Management Centre and the communications providers, as well as incorporating data from cameras in entrance lobbies and courtyards and from traffic enforcement cameras, and geolocation data from mobile phones.

This will result in the creation of a “digital dossier” for all of Moscow’s residents, which may be used to determine the rights granted and opportunities available to each individual according to a rating system. This is already happening to a certain extent, since someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 must forfeit certain rights; the same is true to a lesser extent for the members of this individual’s family, persons having come into contact with the individual, persons arriving from abroad and persons older than 65. Then there are the volunteers, taxi drivers, HCPs, police officers, and people with various other special roles – judges, lawyers and employees providing essential services. We should also not forget the option for raising or lowering an individual’s rating based on “merits or demerits”. The end result is a surveillance system that is ready to be scaled up and that it will be very difficult to oppose – and that might be introduced again the next time that a “state of high alert” is declared.

Which regions are restricting movement as part of the fight against the Coronavirus: Grey – no self-isolation regime; Palest Pink: self-isolation for people over 65; Next Palest Pink: self-isolation without a system of passes; Darker Pink: self isolation with a system of passes; Bright Red: strict ban on movement, borders of the region are closed.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove and Joanne Reynolds

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