Big brother is watching everyone in Russia

Moscow plans to put WiFi in classrooms, revolutionise paid parking, and build online medical database

By Andrew Roth

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Published: Tue 19 Dec 2017, 9:27 PM

Last updated: Tue 19 Dec 2017, 11:28 PM

From a boardroom in Moscow, I watched remotely by television as a security camera mounted by my apartment 4-1/4 miles away swivelled over the street where I live and then began to zoom in on a neighbour's window. Luckily, he'd closed his blinds that day.

"Zoom in . . . just not toward the apartment," said Alexander Gorbatko, Moscow's deputy head for information technology, directing an aide taking me on a digital tour of Moscow. To me, he said: "As you can see, the system works everywhere."

Moscow is plowing billions of dollars into reinventing itself as a modern, tech-friendly European city, and its system of remote surveillance is also ballooning. Over the past six years, the city has contracted with telecom operators to install more than 130,000 cameras, many of them boasting high resolution, zoom and swivel functions, and an uplink to a centralised database accessed by 16,000 municipal, regional and federal officials, including 6,000 law-enforcement officers.

I had come to see how Moscow's pursuit of all things high-tech was playing into surveillance systems, and I wasn't disappointed. Officials say the streamlined, centralised closed-circuit TV system serves a dual purpose, and that it was originally conceived to improve municipal services rather than serve law enforcement. They also say that access to the camera feeds is carefully managed.

As Gorbatko put it: "A person has rights according to the constitution, and we must do everything to secure those rights. It's not to look after your wife - there are far more important tasks."

What are those tasks? Principals can review feeds from the schools they run. City managers can check in on street sweepers, or use visual analytics to review snow or trash removal (in a hypnotising motion, several video cameras simultaneously rotate and zoom in on a row of trash bins).

But it is the possible use by law enforcement that has ignited imaginations and comparisons to such films as &&&&&&Blade Runner&&&&&& or &&&&&Enemy of the State&&&&&&. Toward the end of my interview, Gorbatko fired up a pilot programme employing a facial recognition programme made by a company called NTechLab. The same company built a product in Russia called FindFace, which matched faces in photographs to social media profiles on VKontakte, a popular social network. The programme was robust enough to beat Google in a Washington University facial recognition competition called MegaFace.

It has also found less savory uses: Russian media reported this year that it was used to identify and harass young women on pornography sites in St. Petersburg.

In the office, the young aide dropped a file with his face into the programme. Within 10 seconds, the system had identified and displayed photographs of him walking into work and into his home, and at the store, culled from the past three weeks. The system is installed on only 1,150 cameras, they told me, and while they had 10 million faces stored in the system already, it was still a work in progress.

Suddenly, I saw a live video stream of myself, standing in the boardroom, appear on the screen. The aide had turned on a mobile app from his iPhone that feeds video into the municipal video database.

"Now you're in the system," he said, and we all laughed. The video is saved for a period of five days.

Moscow's foray into video surveillance is hardly the largest in the world, and still pales in comparison to places such as China, where an estimated 400 million cameras will be installed by 2020. But it's a potent example of how technology will transform urban public spaces, particularly with the use of video cameras and video analytics to automatically review what the cameras record.

While facial recognition has attracted the most media attention, "we are looking at future challenges. It may be tracking objects as part of our video analytics solutions," said Mikhail Ivanov, chief executive at NTechLab.

What about privacy concerns?

It is just one aspect of Moscow's IT department, which boasts an endless agenda of programmes to put WiFi in classrooms, revolutionise paid parking, and build online databases of medical appointments and prescriptions. Some of the plans seem unusually ambitious for a city, such as using a neural network to detect early signs of lung cancer.

Andrei Belozorov, an adviser on strategy and innovation, said that one of the city's biggest obstacles was reputational. "We have to crush stereotypes about Moscow and sometimes about Russia," he said.

One controversial initiative is Active Citizen, an online voting programme that allows Muscovites to vote on municipal issues, such as what to name a metro stop or, more consequentially, whether to support the city's massive renovation programme. Opponents think the system is rigged in favour of decisions the city government wants to make. Belozorov said it had been audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers and said it would begin implementing blockchain technology, a popular buzzword in Moscow now, to burnish its credentials.

(Blockchains are secure evolving lists of records that can keep track of verifiable transactions.)

Why does it need to exist? "We are in a virtual reality now, our children were born in a virtual reality," Belozorov said. With traditional polls, "we need to ask at least 50,000 people face-to-face or by phone" over a period of two to three months and at a cost of nearly $50,000, he said.

"Now we can ask one million people and it costs close to nothing," he said.

For nearly every bloated, bureaucratic problem in Moscow, there's a technological panacea. Noise meters to measure whether people are being too loud. Cameras to review road repairs.

"People get tired," Ivanov said. "We sacrifice some of the quality of human intuition for the guaranteed performance of the computer. A person can't watch a video stream for a long time."

When it comes to video, Gorbatko said, the only limitation is processing power. And there are no other cities in the world where the whole process can be controlled from a cellphone.

"So in theory, anyone can download this application?" I asked about the video programme beaming me onto the TV screen.

"Yes, and then you can become our assistant," he replied. -Washington Post Syndicate

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