MOSCOW — Like many other states, Russia's government is looking for new electronic surveillance tools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Citizens are not taking it well.
The Ministry of Communications released a mobile app this week to “provide electronic services potentially needed during the outbreak of the coronavirus,” and especially for issuing electronic permissions for going outside. Smartphone users in Russia are giving it low ratings and leaving bad reviews in the Android and iOS app stores. Some are reporting the government-backed app to Google and Apple in the hopes of getting it removed, an action usually taken for copyright infringement or inappropriate content.
Since April 15, individuals in Moscow who want to leave home have needed electronic permission. It comes in the form of a QR code, issued on the city administration website after registered users enter their name, location, destination and reason for travel. In other parts of Russia the app will serve as a source of electronic permission.
The practice immediately provoked an outcry from privacy advocates, earning the electronic permission system the nickname “cyber Gulag,” CNN reported. The system also appeared incapable of sustaining a massive volume of requests — the Moscow city administration website went down during the first day of electronic permissions. The authorities blamed “DDoS attacks from abroad.”
The system also generated massive traffic on roads leading to Moscow and crowds in the subway entrances on the first day of operation, with people waiting in long lines to get their QR codes checked by unprepared police officers.
The app, released on April 12, had been downloaded over one million times on Google Play (Apple's app store does not show this metric) and received over 23,800 reviews on both services. Most reviews gave the app a one-star rating out of five, citing privacy concerns and effectively driving the rating to 1.3 stars.
“Privacy laws in Russia are far from being perfect, but several functions of this app violate even those laws. Please avoid using it if you respect your own privacy and privacy of others,” one Google Play user wrote in his review.
The users who downloaded the app also reported it can demand taking a selfie, which would mean access to the mobile phone camera is also required, at least at some point of usage.
“People have a lot of questions about this app: Why do you need to provide so much personal data just to step outside of your home?” said Artem Kozlyuk, founder of RosKomSvoboda, a non-profit monitoring online censorship and surveillance practices in Russia. (RosKomSvoboda, roughly translated as “Russia’s Communications Freedom,” is a play on the name of the country’s internet censorship agency).
Aside from fears of the government abusing citizens’ privacy there is another concern: If the app's data vault is not protected securely enough, it won’t take long until fresh loads of stolen personal data will flood the dark web, Kozlyuk said.
Weak operational security and corruption in Russian law enforcement have already lead to multiple leaks over the past decade, when the databases of traffic police and the migration control service were freely available for purchase, with sellers hawking CDs in subway trains as well as archives online.
“Plus, it’s not clear what will happen to all this data once the pandemic is over. It’s not transparent to the society. We see all around the world the countries introducing measures like this and Russia is joining with its own digital repressions,” Kozlyuk said.
Big Brother goes global
Russia is in good company. Late last month, for example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released an app in the U.S. for exercising while under quarantine, which appeared to be tracking users' location and mobile phone data.
On April 2, RosKomSvoboda launched an interactive map called Pandemic Big Brother for monitoring the new surveillance measures and restrictions being introduced in the countries around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are monitoring for restrictions of civil rights that are realized with digital technologies," the website says. "These restrictions must be lifted after the threat of coronavirus is gone."