We See You! How Russia Has Expanded Its Video-Surveillance System

We See You!
How Russia Has Expanded Its Video‑Surveillance System

By Kristyna Foltynova January 19, 2021

In 2020, Russia ranked third in the world in terms of the number of CCTV cameras on its territory. The country also invested millions of dollars in facial-recognition software and launched one of the world's most comprehensive surveillance systems in Moscow.

While authorities say this will increase public safety and help fight the coronavirus pandemic, human rights activists have raised concerns about the lack of regulation and possible violations of data privacy.

How Does Russia Compare To Other Countries?

According to a recent study by the information and analytical agency TelecomDaily, there were more than 13 million CCTV cameras in Russia in 2020. Only China and the United States had more -- 200 million and 50 million, respectively. When it came to the number of cameras per 1,000 people, Russia also ranked third, after the United States and China.

Number Of CCTV Cameras Per 1,000 People
(top 5 countries)

More than half of the cameras in Russia (almost 8 million) were installed by commercial organizations with a view to protecting property. About one-third (almost 4.5 million) operated in schools, hospitals, and government institutions. These were financed from the state budget. The rest of the cameras (about 1.1 million) were installed by individuals, the study said.

Who's Installing Cameras In Russia?
(percentage of cameras)

Previous studies (e.g., by CompariTech and PreciseSecurity.com) found that Russia had not reported data on cameras in all of its cities, making comparisons with other countries more complicated. Nonetheless, it was revealed that there were 193,000 cameras installed in Moscow and 55,000 in St. Petersburg in 2019. Both ranked among the top 50 most-surveilled cities in the world: Moscow had 15.4 cameras per 1,000 people (No. 29) while St. Petersburg had 10.1 cameras per 1,000 people (No. 37).

Density Of CCTV Cameras In Selected Cities
(number of cameras per square kilometer)

Why Are CCTV Cameras Used?

Authorities in many countries believe that CCTV cameras can reduce crime, increase public safety, or help with traffic situations. On the other hand, there are serious concerns about people's privacy in public spaces and whether data from cameras is securely handled.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic brought a new perspective to the issue, as several countries started using high-tech surveillance to make sure people stayed home if they had been ordered into quarantine. For example, people in Hong Kong were supposed to wear a quarantine wristband, and phone location data was used to track the movement of patients in South Korea.

After several years of testing, Russia launched a facial-recognition system in January 2020. More than 100,000 cameras that had already been installed in Moscow were fitted with this technology.

Consequently, at the beginning of the pandemic, Russia had a system in place that allowed authorities to monitor whether people were complying with quarantine rules. According to some reports, the cameras were able to report "violators" even when they left their homes for just a few minutes to take out the garbage.

How Does Facial Recognition Work?

How Much Is Being Spent On The Cameras?

In 2019, Moscow spent more than $53 million on hardware for facial-recognition technology.

According to a recent MBH Media report, the Moscow mayor's office spent another $35 million in 2020. The largest chunk of the budget (approximately $19 million) was taken by the Moscow Metro, which should have eight cameras in about one-quarter of its carriages. Other funds went to facial-recognition systems for trams and buses, data-storage solutions, and maintenance.

What Is Russia Planning Next?

In June 2020, Russia signed a contract for a facial-recognition system ominously called "Orwell" for all its schools -- more than 43,000 in total. According to authorities, this was done to monitor children's movements and identify potential outsiders on school premises in an effort to increase safety.

Three months later, it was announced that additional facial-recognition systems would be installed across Russia. Besides Moscow, 10 other cities should have cameras in public spaces and at the entryways to apartment buildings. A complete list of cities hasn't been revealed, but officials said there should be around 3,000 cameras installed in Nizhny Novgorod, for example.

Russian police are also reportedly developing a system that would recognize people by their tattoos, irises, voice, or body movements. Gait recognition can identify a person from 50 meters away even when he or she is not facing the camera. It analyses a person's walk based on the length of steps, the angle of the feet, or the movement of the arms, and can't easily be fooled.

Features Monitored By Gait-Recognition Systems

As all surveillance technologies rely heavily on databases, Russia wants to create a centralized bank of fingerprints, facial images, and other biometric data. The database would collect information on both Russians and foreigners. The plan is to develop it within the next three years.

What Do Russians Think About Video Surveillance?

Since the facial-recognition system was launched in Moscow, there have been reports of alleged data leaks. For example, a digital rights organization, Roskomsvoboda, documented several cases of Moscow residents whose data was available for sale online. Roskomsvoboda volunteer Anna Kuznetsova was allegedly able to obtain data from 79 Moscow cameras, including her personal information. She filed a lawsuit against the Moscow Information Technology Department.

However, Muscovites seem to be divided in their opinions when it comes to video surveillance. Some 47 percent have rather positive feelings, saying that cameras will fight crime and ensure more safety while 42 percent have rather negative feelings. They are mostly worried that the system might violate their freedom. Some respondents also believed that the cameras are unnecessary and a waste of money.

What Are Muscovites' Feelings Toward Video Surveillance?
(in percentages)

A Boon Or A Bane?

While using facial-recognition systems might seem justifiable during a global pandemic, rights groups have called for regulations to make sure these measures are temporary, proportionate to the current situation, and are not used for nefarious purposes. For example, the authorities in Russia, Belarus, or other repressive countries could employ such technology to identify participants in anti-government protests.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have noted the continuing deterioration of human rights in Russia. The question remains: Once the pandemic is over, is Russia capable of finding the right balance between security surveillance and protecting people's privacy?