Russia: Intrusive facial recognition technology must not be used to crackdown on protests

The Russian authorities must halt their plans to broaden the use of widespread facial recognition systems which will pose a real threat to their citizen’s privacy and human rights, Amnesty International said today as a court in Moscow hears a complaint against the use of such technologies to crack down on peaceful protest.

On 31 January, the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow will begin consideration of a complaint submitted by the civil rights activist Alyona Popova and the politician Vladimir Milov. They argue that data collection about participants of lawful public gatherings results in the violation of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Through the court case they seek to prohibit the use of facial recognition technology at rallies and delete all stored personal data previously collected.

“Facial recognition technology is by nature deeply intrusive, as it enables the widespread and bulk monitoring, collection, storage and analysis of sensitive personal data without individualized reasonable suspicion. In the hands of Russia’s already very abusive authorities, and in the total absence of transparency and accountability for such systems, it is a tool which is likely to take reprisals against peaceful protest to an entirely new level. It is telling that the Russian government has provided no explanation as to how it will ensure the right to privacy and other human rights, nor has it addressed the need for public oversight of such powerful technologies,” said Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International Russia’s Director.

In the hands of Russia’s already very abusive authorities, and in the total absence of transparency and accountability for such systems, the facial recognition technology is a tool which is likely to take reprisals against peaceful protest to an entirely new level
Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International Russia's Director

“The authorities’ response to last summer’s peaceful protests has demonstrated a clear desire to use profiling and surveillance against the government’s critics. The deployment of facial recognition systems during public assemblies – which all available evidence suggests is its primary purpose – will inevitably have a chilling effect on protesters.”

Background

In November 2019, the Savelovsky District Court of Moscow refused to examine Alyona Popova’s claims that her right to privacy were undermined by the establishment of Moscow’s video surveillance system. The face recognition system covering the whole Moscow underground transportation network is set to be fully operative by 1 September 2020.

Given the significant risk to human rights posed by this technology, including the right to privacy, equality and non-discrimination, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, Amnesty believes there can be no place for facial recognition technology in law enforcement until state and private actors can demonstrate that they can use these systems in line with international human rights law.