Yes, Big Brother IS Watching: Russian Schools Getting Surveillance Systems Called ‘Orwell’
MOSCOW — You might think governments seeking digital oversight of their citizens would avoid invoking the author who coined the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” and implanted the nightmare of total state surveillance in the imaginations of millions of readers.
Think again, because Russian officials appear to disagree.
According to the business daily Vedomosti, contracts exceeding 2 billion rubles ($29 million) have been signed for the procurement and installation in schools across Russia of surveillance cameras linked to a system that has facial-recognition capability and is called Orwell, after the British author of dystopian novels 1984 and Animal Farm.
The company tasked with executing the project on behalf of regional governments is the National Center of Informatization (NCI), a subsidiary of state defense and technology conglomerate Rostec, Vedomosti reported on June 15.
The video surveillance systems have been delivered to 1,608 schools across Russia, an unnamed representative of the company told the newspaper, adding that the equipment was intended to keep tabs on students’ comings and goings and identify strangers who attempt to enter school grounds, among other things.
Elvis-Neotech, a subsidiary of state nanotechnology company Rosnano, is responsible for preparing the systems for sale, according to Yevgeny Lapshev, a representative of that company. Lapshev told Vedomosti that the Orwell system will become a security feature in all of Russia’s schools in the coming years — more than 43,000 in all.
Since March, when Russia’s coronavirus epidemic began, the authorities have used facial-recognition technology to identify and fine quarantine violators, deploying — in Moscow alone — a network of over 100,000 cameras that link to a central database accessible to thousands of law enforcement officials at any time.
In addition, a range of smartphone apps and digital passes unveiled since March — some of which remain mandatory for people with COVID-19 symptoms despite the lifting on June 9 of many lockdown restrictions — have prompted fears among data-privacy campaigners that those and other new digital tools may integrate into a ratcheted-up, post-pandemic surveillance apparatus.