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How Putin curbs dissent using facial recognition powered by US tech


Reuters also found that the Russian and Belarusian companies participated in a US facial-recognition test programme, aimed at evaluating emerging technologies and run by an offshoot of the Department of Commerce. One of the firms received US$40,000 in prize money awarded by an arm of US intelligence.

Approached for comment, Nvidia and Intel said they halted all shipments to Russia in March 2022 after the United States tightened export restrictions. They added that they can’t always know how their products are used.

A spokesperson for Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology said participation in its assessments is not a seal of approval. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, which awarded the prizes, said challenges are for “market analysis” and “IARPA has no access to or role in an organisation’s continued development of a technology after the close of a prize challenge.”

Surveillance cameras are just one piece of the Russian government’s campaign to suppress opposition to the war, according to OVD-Info and more than a dozen activists interviewed by Reuters. It is illegal to engage in “public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation” and to deliberately and publicly spread false information about the Russian armed forces. Such actions are punishable by fines and prison sentences ranging from three to 15 years.

Chernyshov is among at least 141 people who were detained preventively in 2022, according to data collected by OVD-Info. They were stopped in the metro on national holidays, when authorities were expecting protests, or at other times when anti-war sentiment was running high, for example after Russia announced a mass draft of men into the military in September.

Reuters interviewed 29 people who were stopped by police in Moscow metro stations. All but one said they understood from officers that they were flagged for detention by facial recognition. At least 14 said officials referred to a system called Sfera, or Sphere. Moscow’s department for transportation stated in a December 2022 news release that its Sfera video analytics system uses VisionLabs technology. Reuters couldn’t determine which other products underpin Sfera.

Those detained included students, pensioners, a scientist, an academic researcher and a courier. Some were commuting to or from work. One man was going to the theatre with his wife and children. A woman was taking her mother to a doctor’s appointment. All had one thing in common – they were critical of the Kremlin. Most had previously joined anti-government protests.

These people said they were held at a metro station or police station for periods ranging from 10 minutes to 18 hours. Seven told Reuters that police informed them they were picked up to stop them protesting. At least 12 said that before their release they signed a document: either undertaking not to protest or acknowledging they had received a warning against protesting. None was charged with any offence.

The Kremlin referred detailed questions for this article to the Moscow mayor’s office which did not respond. Russia’s Interior Ministry, which oversees law enforcement, also did not respond to questions sent via the Kremlin.


The Moscow metro uses facial recognition as part of its fare payment system as well as for security. Passengers are photographed as they walk through the gates and a computer algorithm compares the face to a pictures database. If the system flags a passenger for detention, police respond within seconds or minutes, according to the 29 people who were detained in this way. Alexander Zharov, a 32-year-old civil rights activist, recorded the moment of his detention on his cellphone in August last year and shared the footage with Reuters.

Facial recognition technology uses artificial intelligence algorithms to analyse and identify faces. The Moscow metro has deployed algorithms from three Russian companies, according to a 2021 news release on the city of Moscow’s website. These firms are Tevian, an artificial intelligence company founded by staff at Moscow State University; NtechLab, which from 2018 was part-owned by Russian defence firm Rostec State Corp; and VisionLabs, owned by Russia’s largest mobile operator, MTS, and headquartered in the Netherlands.

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