TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — When Yekaterina Maksimova can't afford to be late, the journalist and activist avoids taking the Moscow subway, even though it's probably the most efficient route.
That's because she's been detained five times in the past year, thanks to the system's pervasive security cameras with facial recognition. She says police would tell her the cameras “reacted” to her — although they often seemed not to understand why, and would let her go after a few hours.
“It seems like I’m in some kind of a database,” says Maksimova, who was previously arrested twice: in 2019 after taking part in a demonstration in Moscow and in 2020 over her environmental activism.
For many Russians like her, it has become increasingly hard to evade the scrutiny of the authorities, with the government actively monitoring social media accounts and using surveillance cameras against activists.
Even an online platform once praised by users for easily navigating bureaucratic tasks is being used as a tool of control: Authorities plan to use it to serve military summonses, thus thwarting a popular tactic by draft evaders of avoiding being handed the military recruitment paperwork in person.
Rights advocates say that Russia under President Vladimir Putin has harnessed digital technology to track, censor and control the population, building what some call a “cyber gulag” — a dark reference to the labor camps that held political prisoners in Soviet times.
It's new territory, even for a nation with a long history of spying on its citizens.
“The Kremlin has indeed become the beneficiary of digitalization and is using all opportunities for state propaganda, for surveilling people, for de-anonymizing internet users,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, head of legal practice at Roskomsvoboda, a Russian internet freedom group the Kremlin deems a “foreign agent.”
RISING ONLINE CENSORSHIP AND PROSECUTIONS
The Kremlin’s seeming indifference about digital monitoring appeared to change after 2011-12 mass protests were coordinated online, prompting authorities to tighten internet controls.
Some regulations allowed them to block websites; others mandated that cellphone operators and internet providers store call records and messages, sharing the information with security services if needed. Authorities pressured companies like Google, Apple and Facebook to store user data on Russian servers, to no avail, and announced plans to build a “sovereign internet” that could be cut off from the rest of the world.
Many experts initially dismissed these efforts as futile, and some still seem ineffective. Russia’s measures might amount to a picket fence compared to China’s Great Firewall, but the Kremlin online crackdown has gained momentum.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, online censorship and prosecutions for social media posts and comments spiked so much that it broke all existing records.
According to Net Freedoms, a prominent internet rights group, more than 610,000 web pages were blocked or removed by authorities in 2022 -– the highest annual total in 15 years — and 779 people faced criminal charges over online comments and posts, also a record.
A major factor was a law, adopted a week after the invasion, that effectively criminalizes antiwar sentiment, said Net Freedoms head Damir Gainutdinov. It outlaws “spreading false information” about or “discrediting” the army.
Human Rights Watch cited another 2022 law allowing authorities “to extrajudicially close mass media outlets and block online content for disseminating ‘false information’ about the conduct of Russian Armed Forces or other state bodies abroad or for disseminating calls for sanctions on Russia.”
SOCIAL MEDIA USERS ‘SHOULDN’T FEEL SAFE'
Harsher anti-extremism laws adopted in 2014 targeted social media users and online speech, leading to hundreds of criminal cases over posts, likes and shares. Most involved users of the popular Russian social media platform VKontakte, which reportedly cooperates with authorities.