The end of anonymity: introducing Project_ID

A new series on openDemocracy Russia
Irina Borogan Andrei Soldatov
25 October 2011

For many decades police officers, employees of government departments and bank clerks wishing to confirm someone’s identity had to see some form of ID – usually an internal passport. Likewise, a surveillance operation required someone to actually tail the person concerned, and bugs to be planted in their apartment. 

The digital revolution has opened completely new possibilities in this area. Now a person can be recognised by a video image, identified by voice, DNA, fingerprints, iris pattern, the unique configuration of the veins on their palms and other means. GPS, mobile phone technology and Wi-fi Internet connection have made it possible to track his or her movements throughout any pursuit. Someone passing under a CCTV camera or chatting on their phone is often unaware of the fact that their identity and other details are being automatically recorded. Modern equipment allows this to happen without the subject knowing anything about it.  

When the latest biometric technology, designed to recognise people by their physical and behavioural features, was first developed, its high price put it out of reach to all  except wealthy corporations, who used it to block unauthorised access to their data banks. But with each year the technology became more sophisticated and less expensive, and today it is exploited with great enthusiasm by the state.

‘The existing level of systems for individual identification … is not adequate to meet contemporary requirements’: such is the conclusion arrived at by the Russian Federation Presidential Commission on the Modernisation and Technological Development of the Economy, set up by Dmitry Medvedev in 2009. Among the projects of this commission, on which forward-minded citizens set so many hopes, a proposal by the FSB on the enhancement of systems for individual identification sits alongside matters such as the development of fast breeder reactors, supercomputers and grid technologies.

If the state considers it essential to put resources into programmes for tracking its citizens in the real world, it is not surprising that the security services are investing in technology to monitor the Internet and social networks. After the Arab revolutions senior government officials, including the Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, started making public statements about the need to control social networks; the state, however, had begun to allocate resources to this area long before the Spring of 2011.

The last few years have seen the appearance in Russia of a totally new technology market in human identification, and it is not yet clear how it will affect our lives. What is clear, however, is that our anonymity, as we understood it, is coming to an end.  

Project_ID will present a series of original investigations about how the Russian state and private corporations are employing new advances in technology to monitor the general public. 

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