Despite Western sanctions and its general technological backwardness, Russia continues to export digital surveillance technology – and find willing buyers.
Russian surveillance systems are supplied not only to foreign companies, but also to foreign governments, including law enforcement agencies. Russian vendors often partner with Western tech giants, avoiding sanctions imposed due to the war in Ukraine.
Here is a guide to the main producers of Russian facial and voice recognition and surveillance tools:
Systems for Operational Investigation Activities (SORM) are hardware and software for monitoring information transmitted by telephone operators.
This company develops SORM hardware and software. It provides IT solutions to the Ministries of Defense and Interior. Protei operates in 35 countries, including Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. It has offices in Jordan and Estonia and partners with Western companies such as Nokia and Oracle. After the invasion of Ukraine, Protei continued to operate outside of Russia. In March 2022, the company signed a contract with Pakistani mobile operator CMPAK.
Nexign, formerly known as Peter-Service, is another SORM provider. The company is part of the USM Telecom holding of Alisher Usmanov, a Kremlin insider. Usmanov was put on the US sanctions list after the invasion of Ukraine, but his company was not. Nexign products have been delivered to 14 countries. Its partners include Microsoft and Oracle. Representative offices are opened in the Dominican Republic and the United Arab Emirates.
According to various estimates, Citadel holds between 60% and 80% of the Russian SORM market. The owner of the company has close ties to the security forces – the company employs generals from the Russian FSB and Interior Ministry secret services. Citadel provides equipment for the implementation of the Yarovaya law, which obliges Russian telecommunications operators to collect and store user traffic. Its subsidiary MFI Soft provides user traffic tracking solutions to countries of the former Soviet Union and, through the Canadian company ALOE Systems, has exported to Canada, the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Peru and Uruguay.
Face and voice recognition
Russian facial and voice recognition systems are popular all over the world. At home, the Kremlin uses them to carry out mass detentions of political activists.
NtechLab is the Russian market leader in the production of facial recognition and video analysis systems. In 2017, the fund of oligarch Roman Abramovich took a stake; the following year, the state corporation Rostec invested. Ten Russian cities and 26 countries are deploying the technology. The main foreign office of NtechLab is located in Cyprus.
Customers include US companies Intel, SpaceX, Dell and Philip Morris, according to a leaked document. Police and military agencies, including Interpol, the Brazilian Federal Police and the Royal Thai Army, also use NtechLab products.
US authorities recognize the effectiveness of the technology. In 2017, the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), in conjunction with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), held a facial recognition algorithm competition. NtechLab won.
Despite the invasion of Ukraine, NtechLab continues to expand worldwide. In March 2022, it announced a partnership with Bangladeshi software company Ribat Metatech. In May 2022, the company delivered a facial recognition system to Sri Lanka. In June 2022, NtechLab announced an expansion into Mexico.
VisionLabs built Moscow’s facial recognition system. Its technology is used in 60 countries, including the United States, Canada, France and Germany. The company even received an award from the American magazine Financial Services Review.
In December 2021, Kremlin-linked businessman Vladimir Yevtushenko acquired VisionLabs. Yevtushenko was included in the British sanctions list.
Voice Technology Center
The Speech Technology Center (STC) develops facial, voice and biometric recognition systems. Originally a public institution, the state-owned Sberbank became the majority shareholder, only to be sold to a new, unknown company after the start of the war in Ukraine. According to the media, the agreement was designed to avoid Western sanctions against Sberbank.
STC gained worldwide notoriety in December 2011, when Wikileaks, in its The Spy Files project, included it in the list of surveillance technology manufacturers. The company acknowledges its cooperation with the Russian Federal Security Service, the Ministry of Interior and the Federal Protective Service. Its products have been shipped to over 75 countries. Foreign partners include Oracle and Cisco.
Russian-made digital surveillance continues to spread around the world. Customers include democracies, whose leaders often declare their opposition to the tools of digital authoritarianism. Instead of buying systems made in Russia, they should stop using them.
Alena Popova is Galina Starovoitova Fellow at the Wilson Center and founder of the Ethics and Technology think tank