WORLD CUP HOSTING CITY Moscow has spent fortunes in recent years reinventing itself as a modern, smart European city.
Brimming with the latest technology to help it run as efficiently and as safely as possible, one major area of investment is in its system of remote surveillance.
Over the past six years or so, the capital contracted with telecoms firms to install more than 130,000 cameras across the city, many of which tout high-resolution zoom and swivel functions, as well as an uplink to a centralised database accessed by 16,000 municipal, regional and federal officials, including 6,000 law enforcement officers.
While many cities have a similarly enormous network of CCTV cameras, most are unlike Moscow, which is hooked up to a powerful facial recognition system that can track criminals (or anyone for that matter) wherever they go.
This might not come as much of a surprise to those that know about how smart cities utilise surveillance, but it probably will come as a shock to most when they learn to what extent the city is able to essentially spy on its citizens.
It was revealed late last year that since February, the city of Moscow had been using facial recognition technology across all of its many CCTV cameras across the city.
The company behind this software is NTechLab, a Russian company that is notorious for its app FindFace, which can apparently track everyone on social media based on their profile. It caused an uproar both in and outside Russia after it was revealed that it was used to identify and harass sex workers and porn actresses through their personal profiles.
It's also worth noting that NTechLab doesn't disclose the identity of its clients, so nobody really knows who actually uses the software. Well, until it became apparent the city's authorities have been using it to identify people.
Worse still, Moscow's Department of Information Technologies said the surveillance system covers 95 per cent of all apartment building entrances in the metropolis, making it the largest in the world.
It works by detecting the faces recorded by the CCTV cameras and alerting the authorities if it detects faces that can be matched with those on law-enforcement databases. The multi0camera set up means they can then go and follow a suspect's route across the city.
At what cost?
While such a technology can help the government of a huge city like Moscow take better control of crime as it monitors almost everything that is happening, does this investment in surveillance come at a cost?
It goes without saying that such a technology brings with it the burden of serious privacy implications. And with surveillance being paramount in Moscow, this is inevitably going to have an effect the personal experience of both residents and visitors of the city.
And it's this what has brought me to writing about this exact topic today. I was in Moscow for the first time earlier this month attending the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup, and I was quite taken aback by how much I felt like my privacy was being intruded on, on several occasions.
It wasn't only the CCTV that you'd notice everywhere, it was the security checkpoints, metal detector and body searches - everywhere. Every museum, park, restaurant or any big building entrance seemed to have some form of the security barrier that you'd have to pass before you were allowed in. You'd have to give up your possessions on numerous occasions for a search, just to enter a public place.
Was this meant to make me feel safer, I wondered? Because it didn't. It just made me feel violated. It got tiring, you felt intruded upon and generally, it gave the city a really bad vibe, and after a few days, I just couldn't wait to leave.
I understand the city might have stepped up its level of security and surveillance in preparation for the World Cup, but it felt bigger than that. And after my experience, I left with the feeling that I'd never want to return.
And surely this bad experience for tourists, in turn, will eventually hurt tourism for the capital, and any other smart cities that follow suit in the future. µ
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