28 April 2020
Grigory Yavlinsky, politician
On the need to establish a public commission to oversee government use of digital technologies
In autumn 2013, as a deputy of the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly, I introduced a bill to the city parliament that would amend the Federal Law “On Police”. According to this initiative, mandatory video recording systems would have to be used in all police premises, police stations and police cars, where not only law enforcement officers can be found. It was assumed that video surveillance would become an important source of information for crime prevention and during investigations, as well as in resolving contentious issues that arise during communication between police officers and citizens. In other words, any contact between the police and the public would be under external oversight. In order to preserve the secrecy of an investigation and operational measures, access to these records would be subjecct to a special procedure. However, their very existence, official status, and the possibility of being brought before the courts would make it possible to monitor police actions in relation to citizens and make them accountable to society. The St Petersburg Legislative Assembly did not approve the initiative, it lost out by one vote. In May 2016, the initiative was officially submitted to the State Duma. However, they did not consider the bill there.
Four years have passed. In April 2020, against the backdrop of the epidemic and impending socio-economic crisis, the Russian authorities, realising that serious dissatisfaction had been growing due to the state of affairs in the country, went in the opposite direction. The government has prepared amendments to the law “On Police” which will allow police officers to open cars, block and cordon off territories, houses and buildings at their own discretion. According to the amendments, the police will have the right to conduct a “personal inspection of citizens and their belongings” within the boundaries of the cordon, as well as search vehicles. Moreover, the bill gives the police the right to use weapons if a citizen engages in “actions that can be perceived as a threat of attack on a police officer” (remember the events of last summer in Moscow!). Finally, the government amendments prohibit punishing police officers for acts committed “in the line of duty.” Thus, after the adoption of the amendments, the police will be able to do almost everything: cordon off, block, search, open cars in the absence of their owners and even shoot to kill someone who appears to be attacking them – with a total lack of oversight and with legal impunity.
Endowing the police with ever-increasing uncontrolled powers is only part of the danger that looms over society. It is already not society that controls the actions of the authorities, police and special services, but rather the authorities, police and special services that monitor society: electronic passes and video surveillance are being introduced. Before our eyes, the Russian authoritarian regime, which has almost monopolized the media and lacks an independent judiciary and separation of powers, is trying to completely abolish the rule of law and the constitution. Now, faced with the bankruptcy of the commodity economic model, the regime, in the guise of anti-epidemic measures, is preparing tools for future repression and the use of punitive actions against citizens.
Of course, in Russia’s current condition, the mass use of digital technology and electronic surveillance methods will lead not only to an increase in conventional crimes related to data theft and fraud (including large-scale crimes, and even crimes with direct state involvement) but to another serious new threat:
By expanding the rights of police, to the detriment of citizens’ rights, and by handing over novel surveillance technologies to the security forces, the conditions and tools are created that provide the basis for the transformation of the existing regime at any moment and quite rapidly into a thoroughly closed and proto-fascist regime, opposed to society. With this come rulers who are corrupt and ready-for-anything, reckless in foreign policy and with an aggressive militaristic ideology that is both authoritarian and chauvinistic.
This transformation could be instigated by either those currently in power in order to retain power and protect capital, or (more likely,) by those who will by some means replace them (for example, through the so-called transition of power). (For more information on how to counteract such developments, see Louder Voice, Activism and Politics, Putin’s Amendments and “Zeroing Out” are Illegal, Legitimizing the Corporate State.)
As such, it should be assumed that in the current Russian climate and given the nature of Putin’s system, digital tracking technologies, including big data and AI systems, will certainly be used for political purposes in order to suppress dissidents and opposition, and for corporate raiding. The fundamental solution for the prevention of such threats is to form an honest, responsible and transparent government, which can be trusted in its use of modern digital technology to govern the country. However, even if a genuine people’s power appears in Russia, it will still be absolutely necessary when using these technologies to have parliamentary oversight, with a framework for independent public monitoring and effective protection against abuse.
Given how rapidly the authorities are adopting these new technologies, while re-writing and, essentially, abolishing the law and Russia’s very constitution, the need for a public response is urgent.
Along with the need to reinforce public oversight over the police and Rosgvardia, including their use of video surveillance, it is necessary to begin work immediately on the foundation of an institution to conduct monitoring: The Public Commission for Monitoring State Application of Digital Technology. The Commission would be formed of IT specialists, lawyers, public figures and human rights defenders. The aim of the Public Commission would be to monitor and require the State to provide verified guarantees that digital technologies are used to track individuals and populations strictly for the benefit of the people, in full compliance with human rights obligations. The Commission should call for the transparency of measures taken by the State and be able to study such measures in detail. If necessary, they should have the right to make changes, restrictions or even reverse certain measures.
Specifically the Public Commission must today demand guarantees that:
- the collection, retention and merging of an increased amount of personal data, including data on health, is carried out solely in order to respond to the pandemic;
- the collection, storage and aggregation of data to prepare a response to the pandemic should be limited in scope;
- work carried out with the data should be limited to the period of the pandemic;
- the data should not be used for commercial or any other purposes.
In future, the Public Commission should require that government agencies ensure adequate security for any personal data collected and received from personal devices, and applications, with the help of networks or services used in the collection, transmission, processing and storage of information. Government declarations on data anonymity should be evidence-based and supported by sufficient information on how this anonymity is achieved. Complete clarity is needed regarding what information the authorities hold and what they pass on to third parties. In particular, tracking mechanisms introduces in response to the pandemic should not enter the remit of intelligence or security services.
Additionally, with the help of the Public Commission citizens should be able to find out about and challenge any measures to collect, aggregate, retain and use their personal data. People who are being monitored need to be given access to effective means of defending their rights; these means are to be created.
In other words, today, as never before, it is important that the whole process of the collection and utilisation by the state of personal data tracking the movements of citizens, the further storage of this information, and with it all the activities of law enforcement should be under the full and effective supervision of society.
Obviously this problem is not relevant to Russia alone. And it’s not just about the pandemic. The spread of digital technology is an objective process, and it cannot be stopped. The authorities in many countries are now using digital technology for a variety of purposes, including political ones. Perhaps the time has come to initiate the development and adoption of the International Convention on Digital Security.
For Russia this is not even a question for the near future, but a question for today. Because in the conditions of a murky, corporate-authoritarian state, not based on the rule of law, in which the authorities have arbitrarily gifted themselves with virtually unlimited powers in the absence of any accountability, the use of invasive electronic tracking systems in cities, including access to data regarding the location of mobile phones, is a critical threat not only to the right to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, but also the personal safety of citizens in the purest sense of the term. That is why today in Russia it is necessary to immediately create a Public Commission to oversee the use of digital technologies by the state.