China’s ‘social credit’ system ranks citizens and punishes them if the Communist Party deems them untrustworthy.  Although the Russian government has denied plans to copy China, it has introduced digital profiles for migrants and taxi drivers, and signaled its desire to extend the procedure to schoolchildren.

The introduction of these surveillance systems produced little protest – until the authorities decided to introduce a permanent digital profile for soccer fans. Soccer fans, according to experts, have remained almost the last organized movement in Russia partly outside of government control.

The new digital profile, dubbed Fan ID, is required to purchase tickets for games. Russians apply for a Fan ID online or offline. Prior to its introduction, purchasers of tickets for sports events remained anonymous. Only clubs stored the personal data of their supporters.  Fan ID allowed the Russian Ministry of Digital Development to collect the data, and share it with the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Fan ID was first used at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. It was next deployed for international soccer competitions in Russia: the 2017 Confederation Cup, the 2018 World Cup, and the 2020 European Championship.

Fan ID was not imposed for domestic Russian Premier League matches – until after the 2018 World Cup when the government proposed to extend it.  President Vladimir Putin signed a Fan ID bill in December 2021, allowing the government to designate cultural and athletic events requiring Fan ID. As a first trial step, authorities made it mandatory to buy soccer tickets for five stadiums. Starting this December, it will become obligatory at all stadiums hosting Russian Premier League games. The official justification is to “ensure the security of the state, public safety, and public order during official sports competitions.”

However, Russian soccer stadiums already are secure. They are already equipped with cameras connected to a facial recognition system. To enter the stadium, fans pass through metal detectors and indicators of hazardous liquids and explosives.

The real reason for Fan ID is not security. It is to ban access to sporting events to citizens opposed to the state.  Under the law, attendance may be prohibited “if it is necessary in order to ensure the defense capability or security of the state or public order.” This justifies denying access to the stadium to any soccer fan, political activist, or journalist.  Applications for Fan IDs already have been denied to opposition political activists and journalists.

Soccer fans are outraged. St. Petersburg’s Zenit fan club refused to apply for Fan IDs. Moscow club Spartak fan clubs soon joined in the boycott.  By February 2022, fan groups of almost all Russia Premier League clubs had announced that they would not attend matches requiring Fan ID.

Supporters have not limited themselves to boycotting matches. They come to stadiums that do not yet require Fan ID in black mourning shirts, leave during the match, and post videos demanding the removal of Fan ID. Management of many clubs support their fans.

Attendance at stadiums where Fan ID was introduced has dropped dramatically. In August 2022, 8,931 people attended the match between Ural and Spartak. In May, when Fan ID was not required, 26,402 spectators attended the Ural-Spartak game at the same stadium. In September 2022, only 220,000 people in all of Russia registered in the Fan ID database.

Despite the protests, the Russian government does not plan to repeal Fan ID. The Kremlin fears showing any weakness.  Although the law allows the Government to extend the Fan ID to all other sporting events, the Kremlin looks unlikely to take additional measures during the Ukraine conflict.

The soccer protests are important. They underline the fragility of public support for Kremlin repression. At the least, it will make the Kremlin cautious about additional tools of digital repression, not to mention a Chinese-style social credit system.

Alena Popova is the Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center and founder of the Ethics and Technology think tank.