Russia wants to expand DNA storage of citizens

Test tubes
The DNA samples collected will be stored in a central database along with other biometric data. (Source: IMAGO / Panthermedia)

In Russia, DNA samples are to be taken from every person suspected of a crime from now on. This is reported by the human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), which criticizes that the state’s “massive surveillance system” will thus be further expanded.

According to HRW, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the corresponding law on Monday. It is expected to come into full force in 2025, the report said.

According to the report, the law provides for the mass collection of DNA samples from suspects. This will also happen in cases of misdemeanors such as traffic offenses or drunkenness in public. Because of participation in “unauthorized” gatherings, police are also to collect DNA samples. In the event of a conviction, the law provides for the DNA profiles to be stored indefinitely in the state database.

So far, authorities have only taken DNA samples from people convicted of sex offenses or other serious crimes, he said. However, there have been cases in the past where imprisoned activists have been forced to provide samples. According to HRW, the government expects to collect DNA samples from at least 1.8 million people per year in the future.

No independent supervision

Biometric data such as DNA samples are particularly sensitive because they cannot be changed. People can be identified through them for a lifetime. HRW criticizes the mass collection of DNA profiles as particularly problematic because they can also provide information about a person’s ethnicity and family connections. Hereditary diseases could also be detected on the basis of such information.

A blanket collection of DNA data violates international human rights laws, according to the organization.

Law enforcement agencies in Russia would also have unrestricted access to the database and could use the information stored in it. There is no provision for independent oversight, it said.

According to HRW, legislation was passed in Russia in December 2022 requiring all biometric data to be consolidated into a state database. The organization had already warned last year that, contrary to what the authorities claimed, the security of biometric data would not be increased by a central database. Rather, a data leak would affect many people and have serious consequences.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Russian government to refrain from mass DNA hoarding. There must be time limits on stored DNA information. In addition, the authorities should regularly check whether data is still needed and restrict access to the DNA database.

Use of facial recognition

Russian authorities are also expanding the use of facial recognition technology, according to HRW. The organization had already criticized the use of the technology in Moscow and other cities in the past.

Facial recognition has already been used in Moscow since 2017. The technology is used there for law enforcement, but also for buying tickets in the subway. When the payment system was introduced at the end of 2021, data privacy activists had warned that the biometric data could also be misused for surveillance purposes.

According to HRW, Moscow authorities had already used facial recognition at demonstrations for imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Nawalny and identified participants were subsequently arrested. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the technology had also been used to track down people who had evaded conscription. People who had protested the war were also reportedly identified using facial recognition.

Back in November 2020, the Russian data protection organization Roskomsvoboda had also documented a data leak from Moscow surveillance. Access to the system was offered via the messenger service Telegram in exchange for money. Anyone who sent in a photo and paid the equivalent of about 175 euros received a list of addresses where the surveillance systems had recorded the person in the picture. One Roskomsvoboda activist had submitted her own picture as a test and subsequently received the locations where she had been recorded. Using recurring locations, it was also possible to trace her place of residence. (js)