Russia’s Cyber Gulag: Tracking And Controlling Citizens

  • May 23, 2023
Russia was historically slow in uptake of total surveillance technology, but they are racing to catch up, partly because of the war in Ukraine and partly because its propaganda engine is wearing thin with its populace. Russia’s tightening relationship with China also signals a transfer of technology and Technocratic strategies to implement it.⁃ TN Editor

When Yekaterina Maksimova can’t afford to be late, the journalist and activist avoids taking the Moscow subway, even though it’s probably the most efficient route.

That’s because she’s been detained five times in the past year, thanks to the system’s pervasive security cameras with facial recognition. She says police would tell her the cameras “reacted” to her — although they often seemed not to understand why, and would let her go after a few hours.

“It seems like I’m in some kind of a database,” says Maksimova, who was previously arrested twice: in 2019 after taking part in a demonstration in Moscow and in 2020 over her environmental activism.

For many Russians like her, it has become increasingly hard to evade the scrutiny of the authorities, with the government actively monitoring social media accounts and using surveillance cameras against activists.

Even an online platform once praised by users for easily navigating bureaucratic tasks is being used as a tool of control: Authorities plan to use it to serve military summonses, thus thwarting a popular tactic by draft evaders of avoiding being handed the military recruitment paperwork in person.

Rights advocates say that Russia under President Vladimir Putin has harnessed digital technology to track, censor and control the population, building what some call a “cyber gulag” — a dark reference to the labor camps that held political prisoners in Soviet times.

It’s new territory, even for a nation with a long history of spying on its citizens.

“The Kremlin has indeed become the beneficiary of digitalization and is using all opportunities for state propaganda, for surveilling people, for de-anonymizing internet users,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, head of legal practice at Roskomsvoboda, a Russian internet freedom group the Kremlin deems a “foreign agent.”

The Kremlin’s seeming indifference about digital monitoring appeared to change after 2011-12 mass protests were coordinated online, prompting authorities to tighten internet controls.

Some regulations allowed them to block websites; others mandated that cellphone operators and internet providers store call records and messages, sharing the information with security services if needed. Authorities pressured companies like Google, Apple and Facebook to store user data on Russian servers, to no avail, and announced plans to build a “sovereign internet” that could be cut off from the rest of the world.

Many experts initially dismissed these efforts as futile, and some still seem ineffective. Russia’s measures might amount to a picket fence compared to China’s Great Firewall, but the Kremlin online crackdown has gained momentum.

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