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Russia’s Digital Authoritarianism: the Kremlin’s Toolkit

Russia’s Digital Authoritarianism: the Kremlin’s Toolkit
Russia’s Digital Authoritarianism: the Kremlin’s Toolkit

A new report by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Global Diligence LLP explores Kremlin’s system of digital authoritarianism – the use of digital technology by authoritarian regimes to track, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations. The report analyses key repressive technologies, used by Putin’s regime, namely: facial recognition and the Smart City Programme, the System of Operative Investigative Measures (SORM) and the sovereign internet or Ru.net project. The document explains how these technologies work and who stand behind supply, maintenance and operation of digital authoritarianism systems. The report concludes with recommendations to the international stakeholders, including European Union and its Members States, governments of the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada.

A hallmark of Vladimir Putin’s regime is the use of mass surveillance technology to suppress democracy and violate human rights and freedoms. The Kremlin has created a repressive law enforcement and criminal justice system that intimidates Russia’s population, civil society, and businesses into silence and submission. Those who refuse to conform are severely punished. Digital technologies play a major role in this repressive system – by censoring the internet and helping the authorities to identify and target critics and protesters online and on the streets.

Starting in the early 2000s, the Russian state began to implement a series of laws and policies that de facto criminalised criticism of the government, legalized unfettered surveillance of individuals’ online activities, and increased state control over Ru.net, the Russian internet service. The use of mass surveillance technologies is one of the key components of this process, along with the restriction of access to digital information. In Russia, digital authoritarianism takes many forms: the SORM system allows extensive communications monitoring, the sovereign internet (Ru.net) allows the government control and censorship over certain sectors of the internet, and facial recognition video surveillance systems enable the authorities to track and detain critics and opponents of the regime.

The background section of this report traces Russia’s gradual descent into authoritarianism from the pro-democracy protests in 2011 through the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The background section describes the repressive laws the Kremlin has enacted during this period, and examples of how it has used these laws to attack and silence its opponents and critics.

The second part of the report discusses key digital technologies that have enabled the widening repression, namely: facial recognition and the Smart City Programme, the System of Operative Investigative Measures (SORM) and the sovereign internet or Ru.net project. The report identifies the software and hardware tools used by the Kremlin to cement its control over information and identify its detractors – and the key manufacturers and suppliers of these tools. Not only are these tools used to suppress democracy in Russia, but they likely contribute to Russia’s continuing aggression in Ukraine – by censoring information on the realities of Russia’s war in Ukraine and stamping out any home-grown opposition. There is also evidence that some of these technologies have been used to identify and detain Russian men in order to send them to the frontlines in Ukraine.

Digital technology described in this report relies heavily on the import of components, such as semiconductors, from outside Russia. The report concludes with a series of recommendations addressed to the European Union and its Members States, other western governments and their allies and partners aimed at undermining the supply chains that support the manufacture and supply of these technologies to Russian authorities.

You can download the report below.

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