Accessibility links

Breaking News

'You Have No Masks': Belarus Protesters Use High-Tech Tools To Expose Riot Police

A riot police officer detains a Belarusian opposition supporter during a protest in Minsk on August 30.

MOSCOW -- The video shows two baton-wielding police officers and a protester cowering on the ground as bystanders loudly demand his release.

As one of the officers turns to the camera, only his eyes visible behind a balaclava, the frame freezes and a message appears: “Performing facial segmentation….”

Within seconds, a computer produces the photo and personal data of a man identified as a 29-year-old from Minsk. The cursor clicks on a tab labeled “Reconstruction,” and the man's face is superimposed onto the officer depicted in the shot.

The video, which has gathered more than a half million views, was posted to YouTube on September 24 by Andrew Maximov, a 30-year-old, Minsk-born, U.S.-based digital artist.

It shows how artificial intelligence can be used to unmask law enforcement officers involved in the violent crackdown on protesters since the disputed August 9 reelection of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has led Belarus since 1994.

Maximov, who emigrated when he was 22 and now lives in Los Angeles, California, said the goal was to show police officers that they should not feel they can act with impunity.

The purpose "was to demonstrate to the people that, instead of upholding the law in Belarus, they are breaking it daily, that there is every technological capability available to put their faces onto the photo and video evidence of their offenses,” he told RFE/RL.

“Though there are very active 'de-anonymization' initiatives going on all throughout Belarusian society, we believe that making them that much more visual, by returning the faces to the 'scene of the crime,' so to speak, that should have a more pronounced effect," he said.

Maximov said he was “on the front lines of the protests” against Lukashenka's reelection in 2010, and this year, he said, “I felt like I don't have a moral right to remain silent.”

New Tech Tools

But the technology he promotes is part of a wider initiative aimed at revealing the identities of officers who have beaten activists, acting with impunity even as pressure mounts on Lukashenka to step down.

The Lukashenka regime, which has relied on secrecy and deniability, is also being challenged by a daring streak among the crowds it is struggling to control: Protesters are increasingly emboldened to rip off the masks of helmeted and balaclava-clad officers from the country’s feared security services, who can be seen fleeing the scene in numerous videos posted online.

Another tech tool being harnessed is the encrypted messenger app Telegram, which has continued to serve as a major conduit for news, information, and opposition tactics. On the app, which has bypassed Internet censorship imposed by Lukashenka’s regime, the opposition channel NEXTA has amassed over 2 million subscribers.

App Helps Belarusians Boycott Firms Linked To Lukashenka
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:52 0:00

NEXTA often shares posts from another channel, the Black Book of Belarus, which every day publishes the names, addresses, and other personal data of officials in Lukashenka’s orbit and the security servicemen who help him stay in power.

Beyond exposing law enforcement, the opposition’s digital campaign has also embraced tools that target other aspects of the Lukashenka regime.

One is a barcode scanner for smartphones which identifies products linked to companies that have sided with Lukashenka or in which the strongman has a stake, according to Siarhei Kastrama, a Prague-based lawyer who was involved in building the scanner.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.

“I set up a database and a friend of mine, who is a programmer, developed the app,” he said in an interview with Current Time.

Current Time is a 24-hour Russian TV network run by RFE/RL with assistance from VOA.

Belarus’s capital has long prided itself on a vibrant and innovative IT sector that has managed to thrive amid an authoritarian political system. Since the August 9 election, however, many of its developers have left Minsk for nearby countries like Latvia and Poland, and a growing number of programmers are also turning to help the opposition movement at home.

But the tools and platforms that have been harnessed by the opposition, especially the publication of riot officers' personal data, are spurring some people to vigilantism.

On September 25, the words “fascist” and “murderer” were spray-painted onto a wall outside the entrance to a Minsk apartment block where Dzmitry Balaba, the head of the precinct’s riot police unit, was believed to live.

“There’s nowhere to run, you rat,” the message read. Balaba’s alleged address was published by the Black Book of Belarus.

It’s also unclear how accurate initiatives like Black Book of Belarus are and there appears to be little independent oversight of the posts it publishes. Many include what they describe as the “presumed address” of the men they unmask and other presumed, unverified details.

The danger is that wrongful attributions by such platforms can lead to acts of retribution against people not linked to the crimes they’ve been linked to online, some activists have warned.

In the YouTube video dated September 24, Maximov says he hopes the application of artificial intelligence will aid the efforts to blow the cover of the men who are prosecuting the Belarusian government’s war on opponents. He also issues a warning to the country’s police.

“Your children will look at your faces as you commit the most despicable acts in your lives and it seems you don’t fully recognize the real precariousness of your situation,” he says, as the names and photos of other alleged law-enforcement officers are revealed. “You have no masks.”

In his comments to RFE/RL, Maximov conceded that his technology is not perfect and that “mistakes are unfortunately going to be made.”

But he said any possible harm from misidentifying someone is outweighed by the overall benefit of holding some perpetrators accountable.

“Privacy concerns surrounding any system of this kind are a huge deal for us and we would much rather it didn't have to exist at all,” he said. “But on an unlevel playing field, where hundreds of people are unlawfully harmed every day, if it has a chance of tempering the violence, then we have to give it a try.”

  • 16x9 Image

    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.