“Digital concentration camp” : is it possible under Russian law ?
Etienne Girardet

Different countries provide different solutions for fighting the propagation of COVID-19. In the Russian case, in the beginning of April 2020, the restrictive measures were still in the process of formation and emergence. One of the most ambiguous questions – that I found and that was the subject of many concerns of Russian citizens – was the question of legal frames to organise quarantine and digital surveillance that were implemented because of the propagation of the virus. As soon as news emerged, a friend wrote to me : “Why am I panicking so much ? […] It’s just as if when France comes up with something similar, this is one thing, and when Russia... it’s wildly scary. I hope they won’t leave everything that way afterwards...” So, what causes so many concerns ? First, I will concentrate on the legal ambiguities of the current situation, then, I will proceed with the description of the new system of digital control.

Since Monday, March 30, Moscow and several other regions officially implemented the measures of restrictions during the quarantine. These measures were quite the same as in the majority of European countries. However, the first big question that occurred here was the regime of such legal implementations. According to Russian federal law, limitation of people’s displacement was possible exclusively in two conditions : state of emergency announced by President ; emergency situation announced in one of the 85 subjects (regions) of the Russian federation. For instance, in France, the state of emergency was proclaimed by the President, so his decree works under such circumstances. In Russia, on the contrary, none of these was implemented. And this allowed thinking twice about the legacy of restrictions. Even on Thursday, April 2, President Putin declared the prolongation of the “unworking days” which were not the subject of labour legislation because they were neither weekends nor holidays. “High preparedness” of government that is actual de jure has no consequences for people: the freedom of displacement cannot be limited. Moreover, there is no official declaration of the state of quarantine provided by an epidemiological service.

According to the Federal Law “On the Protection of the Population and Territories from Natural and Technogenic Emergencies”, regional authorities have the right to declare emergency situations at their level, but the mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobianin, did not make such a decision. The rights and freedoms of citizens may be limited in order to protect health, but only by federal law (Article 55 of the Constitution). “High preparedness” does not imply those restrictions that were introduced by the last decree of the mayor of Moscow out of any legal framework. The law does not provide any authority to restrict movement, terminate the functioning of commercial organizations and self-isolation. So, we saw in April 2020 the implementation of quasi-legal and nontransparent measures. Right defenders argued that no official regime was implemented in order not to pay any compensation to business and people injured by circumstances.

This legal concern determines the second question that causes anxiety within Russian citizens: measures of data processing. Mayor of Moscow has said that each Moscow habitant has to voluntarily register on the official site of the administration and s/he will be given a QR-code to quit home. It seems like this measure is pretty much the same as in other countries, but why then it makes so much concern so that some calls it a “digital concentration camp”? As it is mentioned by professor of political science Ekaterina Shulman, such circumstances of emergency do not create new meanings but accelerate the old ones: planned measures emerge much faster. Moreover, the implementation of norms out of the state of emergency has no temporal limitations. It is evident that at some point, the pandemic will be gone but these norms will remain the same. And considering previous Russian history, Russian citizens are incredibly concerned about what will happen then.

First of all, any new software product contains errors and extremely high development speed increases the likelihood. If millions of people will have to register at once, it does not guarantee stability to the system. Second, there is no clear definition of what data set the operational headquarters want to receive, how (and whether at all) public transparency will be ensured for the processing, storage and destruction of this data to avoid abuse. No information accesses to data will be somehow limited and will be provided only to authorised specialists in the field of geographical epidemiology, data protection and data analysis. So, a massive leak of relevant personal data is possible. Third, it is possible that the collection and processing of personal data may be the regular practice after completion of the epidemic. Moscow government has been already implementing the system of facial recognition for a while. And now, using the situation, it is clear that they will utilise this “quarantine” system for creating a new database.

In the middle of March, the Information Technologies Department of Moscow added an application called “Social monitoring” to App Store and Google Play, however, this application disappeared very soon because “people’s digital front” – as an activist Alyona Popova called – reacted very quickly and classed it extremely low. The Department argued that it was only a beta-version. Right after President’s speech on April 2, Sergey Sobyanin wrote in his blog that the measures with QR-codes were postponed : “The experience of the first non-working week showed that so far there is no such need. Most residents in good faith fulfil the requirement to stay at home.” However, on April 3, the app started to work again. The Department explained that the program was designed for patients with COVID-19 who are receiving treatment at home. “Social monitoring” must track the geolocation of the sick person, see that s/he stays at home. Full control over the patient helps to ensure face recognition technology – a person periodically must confirm that he has access to the phone by a selfie. However, the functionality of the application clearly goes beyond fixing the “fact of leaving” the quarantine zone. Social Monitoring requires users to access more than twenty smartphone features, including : photo and video, accurate and approximate geolocation, sensors about the state of the body, including a heart rate monitor, viewing, as well as changing or deleting data on the drive, unlimited access to the web and data acquisition, access to launch active services. Whether it will be implemented to the whole population of Moscow is still uncertain.

Still, all the measures that are implemented create more questions than answers. And any analysis of the situation may be premature. However, indeed, it is crucial to keep monitoring all the legal and digital developments as the status might change every day.