In Moscow’s Technological Advances, a ‘Double-Edged Sword’

The Moscow Metro — a world-class marvel of efficient mass transportation since it opened in 1935 — made headlines last month with a very 21st-century innovation: a payment system that doesn’t require passengers to produce a ticket, a transit card, a smartphone or a contactless bank card. All they have to do is show their face.

By Oct. 15, the facial recognition system, called Face Pay, was up and running at about 240 stations on the Moscow Metro, a sprawling and constantly expanding system famous for its on-time track record and its grandiose and ornate stations.

Moscow city officials were quick to tout the system’s latest technological innovation, one of several over the last decade. “There are no analogues of Face Pay in terms of quality and ease of use for a passenger anywhere in the world,” said Maksim Liksutov, deputy mayor for transport.

To activate Face Pay, passengers must connect their photo with a bank card and the Metro’s Troika, or transit card, via a special mobile app. Once connected, a camera at the turnstiles identifies their faces (even with masks on) and opens the gates. In theory, it should take two to three seconds for a passenger to clear the turnstile, easing the crush of people at peak rush hours.

It is one of the most visible — and controversial — of the city’s projects to modernize its services, one that takes full advantage of advancing biometric technology and the skills of a new generation of Russian computer engineers. “The technology is new and very complex, we will continue to work on improving it,’’ said Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, in a statement.

But digital privacy activists in Russia were quick to raise the alarm, noting that the new system is not just about improving service on the Moscow Metro. “It is a good pretext to put cameras at the turnstiles,’’ said Artyom Koslyuk, a director at Roskomsvoboda, a digital rights group based in Moscow. “This will allow them to perfect the algorithms used for the recognition of faces.’’

A ticket gate equipped with Face Pay at the Turgenevskaya metro station. Credit…Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

According to Mr. Koslyuk, Moscow ranks third in the world for the most surveillance on streets and public transport, with some 200,000 cameras placed around the city and on the Metro to help police identify criminals and prevent crime. Russian police have already used facial recognition to find and arrest demonstrators who participated in peaceful opposition protests.

The two other countries that have gone ahead with facial recognition payment systems are China and Belarus, where privacy rights are also of little concern to the government. (In Belarus, the facial recognition system on the Minsk metro is called Look and Go.) In contrast, the European Parliament voted last month in favor of a nonbinding resolution to ban use of facial recognition technology in public places for police purposes.

Moscow officials have tried to calm concerns about privacy invasion by insisting that the images and data collected are “securely encrypted.’’ Roskomsvoboda, though, said they have uncovered evidence that the system is porous, vulnerable to intruders who can use the data and images for criminal purposes.

Privacy advocates are pushing for a more transparent system of control for this and other advanced, and often intrusive, technologies. “We need to be sure that all these innovations are used to help the people, not harm them,’’ said Mr. Koslyuk.

Face Pay is part of a broader set of efforts in the city to institute technological solutions. Moscow is undoubtedly Russia’s “smartest” city, not least because it is the nation’s capital, and a focus of government attention. Its 12.5 million people make it the second most populous city in Europe — and it is growing. Between 2002 and 2010, while Russia’s population decreased by 1.2 percent, Moscow’s grew by 10.9 percent. And the average wage in the capital is almost double the national average.

The capital also gets royal treatment from the federal government. In 2019, Moscow’s urban renewal budget equaled that of the rest of the country.

“Moscow has the power in terms of finance and budgets,’’ said Sergei Kamolov, a professor at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “Moscow is in the avant-garde, a test case for all different kinds of systems.’’

Two years ago, Russia adopted its own system for ranking its “smart cities,” measuring what is called their “I.Q. level.” This provides benchmarks for cities to measure progress in putting modern techniques and digital services in place for their population. Mr. Kamolov said these are useful tools to pressure local officials to meet targets set in a national “Smart Cities” program.

Mr. Kamolov, who is member of a working group on the “Smart Cities” program, cautions that its ideas and technologies are not easily duplicated from city to city. Nor, he said, do fancy new technologies necessarily have an impact on the citizens’ quality of life. “It seems to me that ‘Smart Cities’ is a deep marketing concept,’’ he said in a telephone interview.

In recent years, Russia has put a major nationwide effort into its e-government services. Ahead of the 2018 World Cup, Russia developed a system of e-visas, allowing tourists to come into the country for a limited time and for limited purpose. And like many countries, it has developed a popular online government portal — known as Gosuslugi, a one-stop website where citizens can retrieve documents, pay fines and make appointments. In a 2020 United Nations e-government survey, Russia’s services ranked 36th out of 193 countries.

In this, as in other areas, Moscow leads the way. More Muscovites use Gosuslgi proportionately than any other region of Russia — not surprising given its concentration of young, educated and computer literate people. But other regions are stepping up efforts to catch up, by offering special courses for computer literacy, especially for the elderly.

Moscow and six other regions were also used as a test case for Russia’s experiment with online voting in last September’s parliamentary elections. The system was challenged by democracy protesters, who described it as a “black box” that allowed the government to fiddle with the vote. Setting aside the contested results — a huge caveat, to be sure — online voting did its job, at least on a technical level.

Moscow has introduced other digital services in health care, in schools and in the legal system, but transportation continues to receive a hefty share of the city’s modernization budget.

According to Mr. Kamolov, Moscow has the largest fleet of electronic buses in Europe while the Metro — which now moves about six million passengers on weekdays (down from more than eight million in the pre-Covid era) — still commands a large portion of public funds: $27 billion for expansion and improvement from 2011 to 2022, most of it for expansion but some of it undoubtedly for the facial recognition system that is now expected to be introduced in other Russian cities.

At Roskomsvoboda, Mr. Koslyuk says the key to introducing advanced digital services that depend on personal data is trust. ‘‘We need to be sure there are controls,’’ he said. “These improvements can be a double-edged sword.”

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