Moscow court case challenges city's facial recognition use after launch

By Alexander Marrow

MOSCOW, Jan 31 (Reuters) - A court on Friday will hear a legal challenge to Moscow's rollout of facial recognition technology over privacy fears, after the final piece of its video surveillance jigsaw fell into place with the awarding of a software contract last month.

Moscow has stepped up its drive to roll out facial recognition technology over the past year, spending or allocating at least 3.3 billion roubles ($53.3 million) on hardware for the project, the database of state purchases showed.

With Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin aiming to have 200,000 cameras across the city -- 175,000 of which are already in place -- the 12.5 million inhabitants of Russia's capital fell under the watchful eye of one of the world's most comprehensive surveillance systems when it became fully operational on Jan. 1.

On Thursday, the European Union scrapped the possibility of a ban on facial recognition technology in public spaces, according to the latest proposals seen by Reuters.

Lawyer and activist Alena Popova and opposition politician Vladimir Milov of the Solidarnost party filed a case against Moscow's Department of Technology (DIT), which manages the capital's video surveillance programme, seeking to ban the technology's use at mass events and protests.

It is Popova's second attempt to ban facial recognition technology in Moscow after a November lawsuit was dismissed.

Popova was fined for appearing at a protest in Moscow in 2018, but she alleged that the authorities only established her identity using facial recognition technology.

On its website, the DIT says it uses video surveillance in crowded areas to "ensure safety", and that video footage is deleted within five days of an incident, unless a request by the public or law enforcement is made.

Popova alleges that the use of private data means this constitutes "illegal surveillance."

The DIT not respond to a Reuters request for comment.


Moscow's facial recognition surveillance began operating in full on Jan. 1 when NtechLab, a private company founded in 2015, won exclusive rights to provide unified video detection services with a 200 million rouble contract, the company confirmed.

The value of the surveillance system's purchases of hardware such as cameras and servers dwarf this software contract, but NtechLab's technology has made the system functional.

The company's software is now working in 105,000 cameras at entrances to buildings in Moscow alone, a source told Reuters.

Facial recognition software is divided into detection and recognition. It works by detecting a face and converting the image to a unique digitised file that can then be scanned in a database.

NtechLab CEO Alexander Minin said his firm does not store any private data.

Minin said facial recognition technology is often misunderstood and he said he feels proud to provide a service that makes cities safer.

"I understand there is always a challenge between privacy and safety, but in countries and in regions where they put the right legislation and regulations in place, I think the results we are getting through the system are enormous and people quickly feel much safer and it's changing the quality of life," he said.

($1 = 61.9355 roubles) (Reporting by Alexander Marrow, Editing by William Maclean)