Russian surveillance systems are supplied not only to foreign companies but also to foreign governments, including law enforcement agencies. Russian suppliers often partner with Western technology giants, avoiding sanctions imposed because of the Ukraine war.
Here’s a guide to the main producers of Russian surveillance and facial and speech recognition tools:
Systems for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM) are hardware and software for monitoring information passing through telephone operators.
This company develops SORM hardware and software. It supplies IT solutions for the Defense and Interior Ministries. Protei operates in 35 countries, including Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Italy, and the United Arab Emirates. It has offices in Jordan and Estonia and partners with Western firms including Nokia and Oracle. After the Ukraine invasion, Protei has continued to operate outside of Russia. In March 2022, the company signed a contract with the Pakistani mobile operator CMPAK.
Nexign, formerly known as Peter-Service, is another SORM supplier. The company is part of Kremlin insider Alisher Usmanov’s USM Telecom holding. Usmanov was put on the US sanctions list after the invasion of Ukraine, but not his company. Nexign’s products have been delivered to 14 countries. Its partners include Microsoft and Oracle. Representative offices are open in the Dominican Republic and the United Arab Emirates.
Nexign said that it does not offer SORM products or DPI solutions and has not done so in the past.
According to various estimates, Citadel holds between 60% to 80% of the Russian SORM market. The company’s owner has close ties with the security forces – the company employs generals from the Russian FSB Secret Service and the Ministry of Interior. Citadel supplies equipment for the implementation of the Yarovaya Law, which obliges Russian telecom operators to collect and store user traffic. Its subsidiary MFI Soft supplies solutions for tracking user traffic to the countries of the former Soviet Union, and through the Canadian company ALOE Systems, has exported to Canada, the USA, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Peru, and Uruguay.
Facial and Speech Recognition
Russian facial and speech recognition systems are popular around the world. At home, the Kremlin uses them to carry out mass detentions of political activists.
NtechLab leads the Russian market in producing facial recognition systems and video analytics. In 2017, the fund of oligarch Roman Abramovich took a stake; the next year, state corporation Rostec invested. Ten Russian cities and 26 countries deploy the technology. NtechLab’s main foreign office is located in Cyprus.
Clients include US companies Intel, SpaceX, Dell, and Philip Morris, according to a leaked document. Police and military agencies, including Interpol, the Brazilian Federal Police, and the Royal Thai Army also use NtechLab products.
US authorities acknowledge the technology’s effectiveness. In 2017, the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), together with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), held a competition for facial recognition algorithms. NtechLab won.
Despite the Ukraine invasion, NtechLab continues to grow around the globe. In March 2022, it announced, a partnership with Bangladeshi software company Ribat Metatech. In May 2022, the company delivered a facial recognition system to Sri Lanka. In June, 2022, NtechLab announced an expansion in Mexico.
VisionLabs built Moscow’s facial recognition system. Its technology is used in 60 countries, including the US, Canada, France, and Germany. The company even received an award from the US magazine Financial Services Review.
In December 2021, Kremlin-connected businessman Vladimir Yevtushenko acquired VisionLabs. Yevtushenko has been included in the UK sanctions list.
Speech Technology Center
The Speech Technology Center (STC) develops facial, voice, and biometric recognition systems. Originally a public institution, state-owned bank Sberbank became the majority shareholder, only to sell out to an unknown new company after the start of the Ukraine war. According to media reports, the deal was designed to avoid Western sanctions against Sberbank.
STC gained worldwide infamy in December 2011, when Wikileaks, in its The Spy Files project, included it in the list of manufacturers of surveillance technologies. The company acknowledges its cooperation with the Russian Federal Security Service, the Ministry of Interior, and the Federal Protective Service. Its products have been shipped to more than 75 countries. Foreign partners include Oracle and Cisco.
Russian-made digital surveillance continues to spread around the world. Clients include democracies, whose leaders often declare opposition to the tools of digital authoritarianism. Instead of buying Russian-made systems, they should stop using them.
Alena Popova is the Galina Starovoitova Fellow at the Wilson Center and founder of the Ethics and Technology think tank
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.