AI vigils fuel censorship fears in Russian cyberspace, IT News, ET CIO
They are among thousands of Russians who have been brought to justice for their social media posts over the past year – a number of digital rights groups could soon turn into a deluge as authorities use the artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor the web.
“We expect that all content posted on social media (in Russia) will be monitored by automated software,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, chief legal officer of digital rights group Roskomsvoboda.
“It will be especially bad for young people who will have red flags (theirs) and will be prosecuted and fined for posting different material,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Russia has passed a series of laws in recent years to strengthen what it calls its Internet “sovereignty” and tighten control over cyberspace.
The scrutiny of what people are saying online is part of a larger campaign that has seen Moscow press foreign tech companies like Twitter and Facebook to remove content it deems illegal and block opposition sites and the media.
While the search for banned material was previously the responsibility of the police or pro-government activists, authorities are turning to AI tools to quickly scan millions of messages a day.
Authorities say the surveillance systems are meant to fight crime, but rights groups fear they are being used to stifle dissent and crack down on free speech.
“We are seeing a pincer attack from governments around the world with draconian laws that attack freedom of expression and privacy online,” said Likhita Banerji, technology and human rights researcher at Amnesty International.
State communications regulator Roskomnadzor did not respond to a request for comment.
Since 2017, Perm-based tech company SEUSLAB has been providing law enforcement in dozens of regions with software that its director Evgeny Rabchevsky says can process a billion social media pages and instant messaging chats per day. .
He said police use the tool to detect and prevent crimes, including terrorism, child pornography, drug offenses and “destructive subcultures” – a term he said referred to. issues such as “child suicide propaganda” and calls for violence.
“Authorities use the product to assess social tensions, identify issues of interest… (and) adjust their activities,” Rabchevsky said, adding that the company had recently developed an AI tool to monitor media activity. social during demonstrations. Last month, the Center for the Study and Network Monitoring of the Youth Environment, an NGO founded on behalf of Putin, said it had developed an AI tool to analyze social media for what it saw as an socially dangerous and destructive content.
The tool was created as part of a program run by the youth agency Rosmolodyozh, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Instead, the spokesperson pointed to an interview in Forbes Russia magazine in which the head of the NGO, Denis Zavarzin, said his system “constantly monitors” around 1.5 million accounts.
Research shows that more Russian AI cyber monitors are in the works.
Official documents seen by Reuters in September show authorities are developing a new surveillance system that will automatically scan for banned content on social media and the Telegram messaging app.
And tenders are also planned for two other tools, one to search for visual information and the other to defend against cyber threats.
All three systems are expected to be operational next year, as the draft budget released in September showed Russia could spend 31 billion rubles ($ 416 million) to improve its internet infrastructure in 2022-24.
In Russia, there is no lack of laws for Internet users.
In 2019, the country imposed new fines of up to 100,000 rubles on people who disseminate what authorities consider to be fake news or show “gross disrespect” for the state.
Court documents viewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation show that the SEUSLAB tool was used that year to bring charges of extremism against a woman for a blasphemous social media post, in which she said it there was no “pederast god”.
Activists and others have landed in hot water for messages related to what the government considers “extremist” organizations, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group and groups linked to jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Damir Gainutdinov, a lawyer who runs the Net Freedoms Project run by human rights group Agora, said last year that journalists and bloggers were fined more than 1,000 for violations of online speech.
Gainutdinov believes the fines come from an automated system.
“Even the text of the notice is always the same, it’s copied and pasted over and over again,” he said.
According to Agora, more than 22,000 administrative cases have been initiated since 2017, including the display of prohibited symbols and the dissemination of extremist material, with cases approaching the record high of 7,000 in 2021 alone.
Andrey Shabanov, a saxophonist from the city of Samara, faces charges including rehabilitating Nazism and disrespecting the Russian military for a series of posts criticizing the Soviet victory celebrations in World War II.
In May last year, he reportedly spoke out against Soviet totalitarianism on VKontakte, a Russian social media site, and said that an annual parade in which people marched with portraits of relatives who fought in the war was ” idiot “.
The 40-year-old musician also uploaded a photo of Adolf Hitler to a website dedicated to the parade, in a move, according to his lawyer Aleksei Lapuzin, to draw attention to what Shabanov saw as “the growth of the fascism in Russia “.
Lapuzin, whose client faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison, said the case was emblematic of the shrinking space for free speech online in the country.
Darbinyan of Roskomsvoboda said the deployment of AI vigilantes was all the more worrying given that no adequate legal framework for digital rights was in place and the government was determined to “cleanse Russian cyberspace of all content. undesirable”.
Earlier this year, Putin called for the internet to be bound by moral rules to prevent society from unraveling and denounced what he said was his role in luring children to street protests across the country. opposition, prostitution and drugs.
Shabanov, the saxophonist, said he refrained from posting on social media for some time after starting his affair, but has now returned to his usual online habits, even though the affair is still under investigation.
“I don’t think words should be something you should be sued for,” he said via WhatsApp. “Stupid words or actions are not a crime.”
Others are more careful.
Some human rights activists have urged internet users to delete old posts – or stay away from social media altogether.
“We do not recommend our supporters to use Russian social networks in general. We do not consider them to be safe,” said Mikhail Klimarev, director of the Internet Protection Society, a privacy group.
“We are in a cyber war, with many people in prison and others being persecuted for what they say on the Internet. Self-censorship is more and more common. I see for myself that sometimes I prefer to remain silent.”