In Russia, sanctions have “ambiguous” effects on automated surveillance

Source: AlgorithmWatch’s “WE READ IT, SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO

The war. Since Russia began its war of aggression in Ukraine, many digital services have been banned or became unavailable due to sanctions. These changes had an “ambiguous effect” on the automated surveillance infrastructure in Russia, two scholars of geopolitics argue. (Their research spans February to September 2022, but one author told me last Tuesday that the trends they describe still hold.)

What’s easier. Facebook and Instagram are now blocked, and YouTube demonetized Russian channels. Audiences flocked to Russian alternatives, such as VK (formerly vKontakte), making surveillance easier. A law was passed in July 2022 that forces Russian public services to be present on VK, blurring the distinction between State-run and private spaces.

On a purely technical level, providers of TLS/SSL (HTTPS) certificates stopped sales in Russia. The Russian Ministry of Digital Development came up with a homegrown alternative, possibly making automated surveillance of online behavior much easier.

What’s harder. Firstly, there’s less money. The government cut funding for Artificial Intelligence projects. It attempted to alleviate the pain with tax breaks for IT companies, but the move mostly led to more companies registering as “IT companies” (p. 27).

Secondly, Russian authorities decided to make the IT sector independent of foreign companies in the early 2010s. This import-substitution strategy is not working. The country still relies on foreign processors and transistors, which are now out of reach. As a result, the rollout of automated surveillance outside of Moscow will be slower, the authors argue (p. 32-34).

Fabian Burkhardt , Mariëlle Wijermars, Digital Authoritarianism and Russia’s War Against Ukraine: How Sanctions-induced Infrastructural Disruptions are Reshaping Russia’s Repressive CapacitiesSAIS Review of International Affairs, 27 Apr. Link to ungated version.