The Washington Post (USA): the Russian measures against coronavirus could further strengthen Putin’s power

The number of cases in Russia, according to various reports, has exceeded 400 thousand, and the country on this indicator is third in the world. Resulting from this turmoil have put the stability of the current regime into question. A referendum on a bundle of constitutional amendments that would allow President Vladimir Putin to run for another two terms, first appointed on 22 April, but then postponed. But the economy continues to suffer, and Putin announced a package of economic measures to stop the rising unemployment and to compensate for lost wages. Even the most carefully orchestrated and full of patriotism, the Victory Day in world war II, and he noted this year without the usual fanfare.

In an attempt to stop the raging epidemic, the Russian government turned to advanced technologies and surveillance: the government uses facial recognition technology and applications for smartphones and even keeps track of the web content and social media posts. All of these tools, albeit to different degrees, are applied against the epidemic in other countries.

If you stick to the simplified view of the Russian technical policy (and possibly on Russian politics in General), suggests two points of view. On the one hand, these measures may be a sincere attempt to stop the spread of the virus. On the other, it’s just an excuse to further enforce control over the population. In fact, it’s both. Technology can indeed save many lives. But the Kremlin never misses any opportunity to expand the powers of state surveillance — and there is no sign that the current crisis will be different.

To fight the pandemic in Russia has cast a wide Arsenal of tools. The victim most in the country Moscow to track the movement of citizens with the help of face recognition technology in public places. In mid-March, the police reported that 178 000 cameras face recognition in the city have to catch hundreds of violators of the quarantine. Although some of the cameras have worked before, their use has expanded considerably.

This surveillance is not limited. Persons with suspected coronavirus had to install on their phones, and special apps. In some regions of the country have introduced digital pass with a QR code, limiting free movement. Some officials even discussed the disclosure of personal data: Republic of Karelia, a region in the North-West of Russia, had planned to publish the addresses of patients with coronavirus to the residents knew which homes to avoid.

As is always the case in Russia, a purely digital measures of surveillance is not limited to — applied and physical coercion. So, during a pandemic, it was reported about the phone calls, fines, home visits, and even arrest violators.

In some cases, the Russian government really applies the technology to stop the coronavirus. For example, face recognition help track down the violators of the quarantine like a woman who returned from China in February, immediately went to meet with friends. One female Professor from Moscow claimed that she was fined because she did not set yourself on the phone app for tracking. In public places, set up special check points digital gaps.

The number of cases growing, it is harmful to the economy and Putin’s image, and government measures partially correspond to the demands of public health. In the end, the experience of other countries shows that the technology can contain the spread of the virus.

But it is also an occasion for the expansion of state powers. “Don’t let the crisis go to waste” applies here hundred — and Putin has long professed this philosophy. With the start of a pandemic it has been mentioned by many experts from the former chief editor of the newspaper Kyiv Post to analysts of the Center for strategic and international studies. The mere fact that Putin withdrew from public view — in an attempt to save its rating from failures of leadership does not mean that attempts to expand the digital control is also sunk into oblivion.

So, the controversy surrounding the technology of face recognition was in full swing in the Russian capital before the pandemic. In may 2019, the city government announced plans to introduce a facial recognition system across the city. Followed by a violent reaction from citizens, particularly fighters for privacy. Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, in early March, the court ruled that urban systems face recognition privacy are not violated.

Since coronavirus has only added fuel to the fire. During the pandemic there was a lot of cameras, but the plans developed before the outbreak, the city will install even more under the guise of epidemiological situation. During a pandemic, the city authorities with their help, certainly watching the population more actively, and this requires public investment and human resources.

Another field of activity for the Kremlin, with its ambivalent approach was the removal of Internet resources. During the pandemic in Russia noted a surge of false information — including a conspiracy theory that the 5G technology is fraught with dangerous consequences. Last year it was extended by the Russian government, and it presumably led to the arson of a cell tower. Fighting dezinformatsii this kind of definitely will make the community safer. However, along with it introduced censorship and suppression of information that contradicts the official data about the scale of the epidemic.

It is significant that at the end of March the Russian Parliament approved more than heavy fines and longer prison sentences for spreading false information with disastrous, according to the government, consequences. Controller Internet and the media, Roskomnadzor tells media platforms to remove “false information” about the virus. Just a few weeks ago the Russian foreign Ministry criticized the “new York times” (the New York Times) and financial times (The Financial Times) for the “misinformation” about the number of cases — refers to figures that are contrary to the public policy of Russia. Authorities the seriousness of the pandemic in every way underestimate, but the Kremlin demands that the online platform was removed figures that contradict the official statistics and the unfavorable way shielding the unwillingness of the Russian health care.

How will Russia’s future, given that the pandemic is growing and technology is used to combat increasingly — controversial topic, where a lot of speculation. But his image of a strong-willed ruler Putin clearly does not match — and the Russian people noticed it. However, his presidential term ends and he is clearly trying to cling to power. It is clear that the “pandemic” of control measures simultaneously serve to contain the virus and the expansion of state power. And the worse the Russian authorities will cope with the epidemic Covid is 19, the more the Kremlin will use it for political control.

Justin Sherman — policy specialist in the field of cyber security analytical center “New America” and a student at Duke University.