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Moscow’s Use of Facial Recognition Technology Challenged

Activists File an Application to European Court of Human Rights

In this photo taken on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, two surveillance camera are seen in a street in Moscow, Russia. Moscow's city officials announced the use of facial recognition technology to target people evading quarantine © AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Activist Alyona Popova and politician Vladimir Milov have lodged a complaint over Russia’s use of  facial recognition technology during protests to the European Court of Human Rights.

Their lawyer, Kirill Koroteyev, said this would be the first case challenging the use of facial recognition technology to conduct mass surveillance in the court’s practice.   

On September 29, 2019, at least 20,000 people, including Popova and Milov, took part in an authorized rally in Moscow in solidarity with those arrested and charged for their participation in peaceful protests. The demonstrations were triggered by the exclusion of independent candidates from the Moscow city legislature elections.

According to Popova and Milov, all the participants of the September protest had to pass through metal detectors equipped with CCTV cameras installed at eye level. The Moscow government announced plans shortly before the protests to use facial recognition technology at large public gatherings. The applicants believe that this was the first case of the Moscow authorities using facial recognition technology to gather data about protestors.

In January, the applicants filed a domestic complaint against the Moscow government. Koroteyev, the head of the international justice program at Agora, said that during a January court hearing in Moscow, a representative of the Moscow Information Technology Department confirmed the use of the facial recognition technology to conduct mass surveillance at the protest. In March, the court dismissed the complaint, claiming that the government’s use of the technology was legal.

Collection of protesters’ unique biometric data through the use of facial recognition technology violates the right to privacy and the freedom of assembly, as protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, Popova and Milov argue in their application. They also state that using this technology at an opposition rally amounts to a discrimination based on political views.

Russian law requires explicit consent for government and private collection of biometric data via facial recognition technology, although there are exceptions set out in the set of vague laws on public security and countering crime.

Article 6 of the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to the Processing of Personal Data (Convention 108+), signed by Russia, underlines the importance of the appropriate legal safeguards to processing of the biometric data obtained via facial recognition technology. Koroteyev noted these safeguards are missing under the Russian law, especially given the absence of any judicial or public oversight over the surveillance methods, including facial recognition.

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