The Russian government has implemented extensive surveillance measures that, they say, will help combat Covid-19. The measures include the installation of 178,000 facial-recognition cameras in Moscow, the mandatory installation of tracking software for those suspected of coronavirus infection, and a requirement for those entering public spaces to carry around QR codes on their devices. Altogether, these measures have enabled the Russian government to track outbreaks through tracing the whereabouts of individuals suspected of infection, along with their friends, taxi drivers, neighbors, and family members. Indeed, within several weeks of its implementation, Moscow police caught and fined 200 people who violated quarantine policies using the facial recognition software alone.
Surprisingly, the Russian government was met with little resistance towards the implementation of increased surveillance tools and practices. CNN reports that coronavirus “has given an unexpected public-relations boost to the system,” likely by a Russian public wary of rising rates of infection, overwhelmed hospitals, and massive casualty everywhere.
Russia’s robust implementation of surveillance tools is another instance of governments expanding their powers during crises that dramatically alter and threaten the very social fabric of life. Often, crises of this scale typically require an expansion of the state, which is needed to mobilize resources and galvanize the public to effectively implement a large-scale response to address a large-scale crisis. Indeed, TIME Magazine reports that many of the countries that had effectively contained the virus mounted a strong, centralized response to track cases, enforce social distancing, and encourage vaccine rollout. This often includes the implementation of measures that expand the state’s reach and power over their citizenry, which manifests in increased governmental involvement and interference in the lives of their people.
So far, Russia’s new surveillance system has been used towards combating Covid-19; however, what happens when the pandemic is over? Is it possible the Russian government will use these mechanisms for much more nefarious purposes?
Historically, would-be autocrats have capitalized on crises to expand their powers. In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write that “Citizens are…more likely to tolerate – and even support – authoritarian measures during security crises, especially when they fear for their own safety” . This is especially true during the pandemic, where amidst increased anxiety, heightened fears, and a desperation to return to normalcy, people have turned to their leaders to issue rigorous and comprehensive responses that only a strong government can provide. Efforts that would otherwise spark mistrust and outcry normally are, thus, lauded and approved during a pandemic. Consequently, Covid-19 has made it significantly easier for governments to exploit the havoc and uncertainty shrouding the crisis to implement policies they otherwise could not. Already, at least 83 countries have used the pandemic to justify draconian maneuvers, such as criminalizing speech that criticizes the state’s response to the outbreak and breaking up anti-government protests, all in the name of protecting public health.
But, Russia’s surveillance program appears to be different from these measures. So far, it hasn’t been used to blatantly assault anti-government entities, jail enemies or police protestors. It has not openly enabled violent authoritarianism. In fact, its effects on anti-government organizations and movements are still unclear. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried.
Writing for the Iowa Law Review, Ozan Varol explains that the way countries deviate from democracies is no longer as evidently anti-democratic as it once was before. Autocrats, vigilant about international condemnation, approach authoritarianism discreetly, in ways that purportedly abide by democratic principles and rules, utilizing an approach he calls “stealth authoritarianism” . For instance, autocrats will publicize the adoption of surveillance laws and institutions as something intended to achieve a publicly-approved aim, like increasing security in times of crisis, but actually use those very laws and institutions to hurt political adversaries and assert their power, through coercing self-censorship against anti-government rhetoric or finding dirt on their opponents .
Varol’s analysis is particularly striking as it relates to Russia’s surveillance programs. It is a reminder that governments can justify new programs for one reason but use them for another purpose: they can implement surveillance programs to counter outbreaks, but simultaneously use them to track movements and collect personal information about their constituents and enemies. Moreover, given Russia’s enthusiasm for surveillance prior to the pandemic, experts believe their surveillance system will be used for both coronavirus containment and state power expansion — and will stay in Russia long after the pandemic subsides.
In times of crisis, governmental expansion is not always a cause for alarm. Often, empowering regimes is necessary to implementing the expedient, large-scale action that is essential to combating major crises. However, the implementation of new practices and institutions is only good as long as it is democratically discussed, transparent, essential, and limited in scope and duration.
When governments exploit vulnerable circumstances to implement permanent authoritarian measures, they are no longer simply addressing a crisis, but creating a new one that threatens the freedoms and liberties intrinsically endowed to their citizens. In Russia’s case, if they, like experts predict, maintain their surveillance infrastructure for non-pandemic related reasons, they catapult surveillance into a tool that brutally enhances their power at the expense of democracy.
While all a potential cause for concern, the truly frightening part of Russian surveillance is not its level of intrusiveness, nor the sheer number of people being watched at any given moment, it is its potential permanence: that it might be here to stay, with no clear end in sight. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).  Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1673-715.  Ibid, 1679-711.