COVID-19: A test for a facial recognition technology and a threat of prison for quarantine violation

Back on February 21, right after there were first cases announced in Italy and Iran and the pandemic started to become a huge issue, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin wrote in his official blog that citizens of Russia have nothing to worry about as Moscow was, and still is, free of the coronavirus. However, recently he announced certain safety measures in order to keep things as they are now.

Thus, Chinese citizens were banned from entering Russia. Those who had already arrived, are to be tracked down and carefully monitored, potential carriers of the virus will be sent to self-isolation for at least 2 weeks.

This, in turn, will be enforced “with the help of our automated facial recognition systems and other technological means.” This will be the biggest test for facial recognition cameras installed all over Moscow.

Notably, ever since the coronavirus began to spread in China, which is the homeland of the world’s most extensive facial recognition systems, the authorities there started to actively use the technology to enforce quarantines and make sure that they are not violated in any way. The facial recognition technology allowed Chinese authorities not only to track down carriers and successfully monitor them, but also to detect new cases in certain situations.

Theoretically, Russia has all opportunities to follow the Chinese example and this way to keep the virus from spreading. However, the main issue is that while Moscow is leading in the adoption of the technologies, other cities – including Russia’s second-largest city, Saint Petersburg – are not and their facial recognition coverage remains very limited.

Russia, with its huge investments in artificial intelligence, is one of the few countries in the world that produces and develops its own AI technologies. Namely, this year, a “Safe City” facial recognition surveillance program, after years of preparations and tests, was finally launched in Moscow – cameras were installed in key public places including the metro, apartment buildings entrances and train stations scan crowds against a database of wanted individuals. In case of detection of any resemblance, the police gets notified immediately.

As Kostas Perifanos, a London-based independent artificial intelligence researcher, commented on this matter, “In principle, there’s no difference between the algorithm searching for a relatively small number of wanted criminals, and for a much higher percentage of the population that might be quarantined. This shouldn’t even seriously impact the accuracy rates, there would just be a great deal more connections made.”

Moreover, there is already a certain practical evidence showing that cameras effectiveness in policing public health is growing: 200 quarantine-breakers have already been identified by facial recognition technology. And after the case of Irina Sannikova, Russian authorities are highly cautious with individuals violating the quarantine regime.

Irina Sannikova, or how Russia state-owned media calls her, “Dr. Death”, is from Stavropol. She violated a 14-day quarantine after coming back from Spain and returned to the university where she was holding regular lectures even after being detected with COVID-19 virus. Due to her irresponsible behavior, 1,200 people had to be tested and at least 11 of them were found to be tested positive. Therefore, authorities decided to put in place certain measures that would keep possible coronavirus spreaders from going outside for a period of their self-isolation. Thus, Irina Sannikova could face a term of 5 years in prison if she infected someone who later died of the viral illness. Thankfully, no health harm was caused and no deaths were recorded by now.

By Natalia Revishvili,

Previous ArticleNext Article