Putin's Crackdown On Demonstrators Adds A Sadistic Twist: Using Surveillance Cameras To Identify People, But To Arrest Them Only Days Or Months Later

from the waiting-for-the-knock-on-the-door dept

It’s hardly news that Vladimir Putin is cracking down on supporters of Alexey Navalny, or on the journalists who are brave enough to report on the wave of protests in support of the imprisoned opposition leader. But there are some interesting wrinkles to how this is happening. For example, in a move that will not surprise Techdirt readers, Moscow’s massive facial recognition camera network — supposedly set up to enforce quarantine restrictions, and to catch criminals — has been re-purposed, as Bloomberg reports:

Police tapped the surveillance system to identify and detain dozens of people who attended last week’s protests in the Russian capital in support of jailed Kremlin foe Alexey Navalny. More than 50 were picked up over the following days, including several journalists, according to OVD-Info, an independent human-rights monitoring group that gathers information on detentions.

Nothing too surprising there, perhaps. But the RFERL.org site points out an important shift in the Russian authorities’ tactics. In the past, the police detained thousands of people who had participated in unsanctioned demonstrations. This time, a token two to three percent of the protesters at a rally were arrested, apparently allowing the rest to go free. However, this is actually part of a new, and even more cruel approach:

in recent days, Russian police have unveiled a new strategy, using surveillance-camera footage and other techniques to identify demonstrators and track them down, days after the event.

The opposition politician and political analyst Leonid Gozman explains:

“Now we have a different situation,” he continued. “They are signaling to everyone: ‘Go ahead and march, guys, but a year from now you can expect we’ll come, expect a knock at your door. And we’ll come or not as we wish….’ Now they have placed everyone in that position.”

It’s a clever approach. It means anyone coming away from attending a demo is unsure whether they have been identified there. The absence of any immediate action by the authorities no longer means protesters have escaped notice. Instead, a kind of digital sword of Damocles hangs over them, waiting to fall at some future, unknown date. The painful uncertainty this generates will probably be enough to dissuade many people from taking part in future demos — a big win for the authorities, obtained at very low cost.

This cat-and-mouse game with protesters is only possible thanks to Moscow’s blanket surveillance cameras and advanced facial recognition systems. Where, in the past, police could only arrest people at a demonstration on the spot, because there was no sure way to find them afterwards, now their faces on CCTV are enough. Once photographed and identified, there is no need to arrest them immediately, which allows the authorities to create this new and debilitating anxiety among protestors that one day there will be that dreaded knock on the door.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Comments on “Putin's Crackdown On Demonstrators Adds A Sadistic Twist: Using Surveillance Cameras To Identify People, But To Arrest Them Only Days Or Months Later”

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21 Comments
Bloof (profile) says:

So, how long until the police in places like Portland and Wisconsin start pulling this on people who attended black lives matters protests? Kinda feels like something they’ll use to punish left wing protesters years after the fact, while right wing groups keep on starting fights and colluding with police to avoid getting caught up in rounds of arrests..

Koby (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon here in the United States. The facial recognition systems are so bad that it’s kind of worthless. Take the Marilyn Harper/Nancy Pelosi laptop FBI raid from last week. The feds realized that they messed up the facial recognition thing so badly that they didn’t bother to arrest her. Over in Soviet Russia, on the other hand, the authorities probably don’t care who they arrest.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"It doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon here in the United States."

McCarthy and Hoover would beg to differ.

"The facial recognition systems are so bad that it’s kind of worthless."

Yes and no. Worthless for good jurisprudens but looking at the "law" enforcement used in many of the BLM protests it was pretty clear "good jurisprudens" was already not on the agenda. Unless you redefine it to include abducting people, assaulting peaceful protestors, or assaulting journalists and non-violent elderly on open camera.

"Take the Marilyn Harper/Nancy Pelosi laptop FBI raid from last week."

You mean Marilyn Hueper, not harper, right?

Well, she did attend that rally, is a known Trump supporter, and her husband took a photo on her right on the Capitol steps on that day. The photo of the woman stealing the laptop was wearing the same coat she was, the same hairstyle she had, and possessed the same face she had. Sure, that could all be coincidental. We’ll see.

The feds did not arrest her but certainly did walk away with a still ongoing investigation.
It says nada about facial recognition used, if any. But given the existing evidence, no such tech would be needed for a warrant.

"Over in Soviet Russia, on the other hand, the authorities probably don’t care who they arrest."

Not quite true. The russians aren’t Trump cultists. They have the best playbook when it comes to finding dissidents; The time spent waiting before the arrest will have been enough for wiretaps, witness accounts and close surveillance to build whatever case they need and make sure the guy they thought walked in the protest was the real one.

That’s the difference between Putin’s Russia and the US of today – when Putin says "all the best people" that’s exactly what he means. Which is why the russian FSB is far more effective at their job than the FBI which has missed every obvious plot since 9/11 over political concerns.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Take the Marilyn Harper/Nancy Pelosi laptop FBI raid from last week. The feds realized that they messed up the facial recognition thing so badly that they didn’t bother to arrest her"

Cool. Now imagine the reverse situation where Trump was still in charge and they had a grainy video that looked vaguely like someone they wanted to take in over Hunter’s laptop (or, "laptop", given the level of evidence available thus far).

I suspect the result would have been different even if the level of evidence had been the same. One more reason to be glad the adults got back in charge for the moment… but for how long?

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DB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Your have the facts wrong about that case.

There appears to be plenty of valid probable cause for the Marilyn Hueper search.

She traveled from Alaska to Washington DC for the demonstration-turned-riot.
She admits to being on the Capitol grounds on January 6, during the insurrection. While she denies entering the building interior, she does appear in video and photos in a restricted exterior area. She denies taking the laptop, but the person on video taking the laptop had clothing and similar features.

She was tied to the January 6 events a month later, after an incident where she refused to put her mask back on during a flight. That’s not a "messed up facial recognition" situation. That’s investigating a match.

This might be a case of mistaken identification, but there isn’t a question about her being a valid suspect. There were humans in the loop, with plenty of investigation and supporting evidence before the search.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Your have the facts wrong about that case."

I’m shocked. /s

I’d not been privy to the right-wing outrage machine on this particular issue and didn’t really care to investigate too much further before responding, but I did Google far enough to see that he got her name wrong.

The fact that Koby can’t even get the basics of what he’s opposing correct is not surprising, but thanks for the clarification on how he’s wrong.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well.. with the BLM protests they were often either arrested immediately or dragged off the street the following day in unmarked vans. When the insurrectionists tried to overthrow democracy and live streamed their crimes, it’s taken weeks or months to pick them all up, in the same way that Kyle Rittenhouse was allowed to go home in a different state before they decided to pick him up.

I don’t think that the delay in the insurrectionist roundups were to send a message, but rather to have time to go through the publicly available evidence before picking them up. A different administration, say one known to collude with Russian agents, might do a similar thing but for different reasons.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"I don’t think that the delay in the insurrectionist roundups were to send a message, but rather to have time to go through the publicly available evidence before picking them up."

Point to note here – the FSB isn’t restricted to publicly available evidence. My guess is the very second they identify a potential suspect said suspect comes under full surveillance. Once that surveillance has come in with sufficient result they haul the guy in.

Probably without having to launch some hamfisted agent provocateur bullshit like the FBI keeps getting caught doing.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
David says:

It's not a "sadistic twist"

As you aptly remark yourself, it is a strategy for infusing long-term fear and compliance.

This cat-and-mouse game with protesters is only possible thanks to Moscow’s blanket surveillance cameras and advanced facial recognition systems.

You wish. It worked fine in the McCarthy era. Also in the GDR’s Stasi time. And the WWII Gestapo. And it’s not like it didn’t already work with the Austro-Hungarian secret police. It depends more on psychology than technology, though of course the latter helps.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: It's not a "sadistic twist"

The tech helps, though. The number of people who might question a paper document but blindly believe even the more obviously incorrect information from a computer is concerning. If people can be convinced to drive into rivers because their GPS tells them to, they can be convinced to round up innocent people because a computer told them to.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's not a "sadistic twist"

"The tech helps, though."

Doubtful. I remember hearing about the news from the DDR and read the revelations of the STASI and their methods. I’m not sure that given their methods the tech added much more than redundance.

When you already have a vast state machinery and unlimited enforcement power at your disposal you don’t need the flimsy pretext of a camera to guide you – most of CCTV in the west just being a way to obtain similar mass surveillance as already exists in states with less of a nod towards civil rights, while pretending it isn’t the same sort of intrusion into citizen privacy.

"The number of people who might question a paper document but blindly believe even the more obviously incorrect information from a computer is concerning."

Somehow I believe this is more of a western problem. If the FSB gets indication of a suspect I think they’ll just spend 24 hours going through all of his affairs with a fine tooth comb and either reject or affirm their suspicions. Contrariwise if the FBI receive indication of suspicion they go get a warrant, decide on which areas to investigate, etc etc – which will take days, weeks or months.

And of course "being against the government" isn’t a crime in the US but the FSB can probably haul someone in right after that part’s been established.

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