Remember how good old “Tricky Dick” Nixon got in trouble for spying on the Democrats? He was a small timer, compared to the neo-Soviet exploits of proud KGB spy Vladimir Putin. Paul Goble reports:
A system of video monitoring Vladimir Putin introduced in 2005 ostensibly to fight street crime has since been extended to 53 of Russia’s federal districts and is now being used as part of a countrywide electronic network to “control the population,” according to a leading Moscow specialist on the security services.
In the latest of her series of articles on the modernization of Russia’s security services, Agentura.ru editor Irina Borogan describes the ways in which these agencies are combining video monitoring with other local and federal data bases to increase the ability of the authorities to monitor any and all opposition activity. Russian officials have acknowledged that their goal is to ensure “public order” by bringing together all the sources of information they have about groups like football fanatics, extremist youth groups, and others in order that through the use of biometric data they can identify and detain particular individuals.
The willingness of the authorities to use the system “not for the struggle with criminals but against socially active citizens” occurred during the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg n 2006, Borogan notes. And the monitoring system was highly effective: “almost all protest actions were disrupted and 500 public activists were detained,” many before reaching the city. But despite the system’s success in that regard, the Agentura.ru editor says, there is no evidence that this “crime fighting” technology has made the northern capital or any other city in the Russian Federation notably safer over the past three years. And that suggests that the authorities are really focused on using it for other purposes.
Given that alternative focus, she continues, it is a matter of even greater concern that the authorities already in 2005 have begun to create a “super” data base intended to “integrate all militia data bases of local and federal levels into a single system so that each regional militia will have access to it.”
That system is slated to be completed by 2011, but Borogan notes, “much has already been done. Between 2005 and 2008, the network has grown to the point where hundreds of interior ministry offices across the country are linked together. And over the same period, the number of fingerprint files in this network has doubled even though crime and arrests have not.
Those involved in the development of this network say that after it is completed, officers in more than 4,000 MVD units will have access to this information. And in time, there will thus be “a single information space” from which officials can gain “instant access to all kinds of information about an individual – audio, video, photo, fingerprint, biometric and text. With the availability of such information in the computer data base, Borogan says, officials will be able to compile “an interactive dossier on an individual in any place in the country having identified him through any particular measure.” The ways in which this could be abused are obvious.
Militia officers will be able to track the routes of those coming together for meetings in any Russian city. They will be able to identify the leaders of this or that group. They will be able to block some attending or move to disperse the meeting if people are able to assemble. And the capacity of the authorities to do that will serve to intimidate many thinking about taking part.
The financial crisis has forced the authorities to cut back on many things, but budgetary problems have not had any impact on this program for the tracking and monitoring of the population. Indeed, Borogan says, there is growing evidence that officials are expanding their efforts to develop this system. At the end of last year, she notes, officials established a Situation Center, which brought together officials from the interior ministry and Federal Migration Service to monitor migration with the obvious goal of preventing the emergence of any centers of social tension through the collection of data from 120 regional Situation Centers.
Whether such systems can prevent crime is doubtful, Borogan says. They have not done so in Britain. But if the purpose of this monitoring is not to prevent crime but rather to block public demonstrations, then they may be very effective indeed – or at least that is what the Russian government appears to be counting on.