Russian region launches chatbot to report ‘extremist’ neighbors

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Authorities in one of Russia’s regions have set up a Telegram chatbot that allows citizens to report colleagues and neighbors promoting “anti-Kremlin propaganda.”

The chatbot, named “The Agent is Writing,” was launched by the anti-terrorism commission in Primorsky Krai, located in the far east of Russia with a population of almost 2 million people.

“Do you know anyone inciting hatred, promoting evil and terror, or hiding weapons at home? Now, it’s possible to contact the anti-terrorist commission and report such ‘heroes’ anonymously!” reads the bot’s description.

This is the second Russian region to launch a bot to help identify people who disagree with the regime.

Earlier this month, authorities in Belgorod, near the Ukrainian border, said that they collaborated with the country’s security service to introduce a bot for reporting residents with “anti-Russian sentiments.”

For example, it urged people to report those who share information about the location of the Russian army to “the enemy,” wear or display prohibited symbols and flags, and “destabilize” the situation in the country.

Belgorod authorities later deleted their announcement, leaving the fate of this bot unclear.

Denunciation is a common practice in Russia, inherited from Soviet times. In the first half of last year, Russian citizens filed over 145,000 reports on other residents, primarily concerning social media posts with “fakes” that “discredit” the Russian army during the war in Ukraine, according to the local internet freedom organization Roskomsvoboda.

Typically, people submit these reports in writing to the local police or the internet watchdog Roskomnadzor. Digital tools like Telegram chatbots make the process easier and faster.

Expressing opposing views In Russia can be punishable by law and may result in job loss or damage to one’s reputation.

In October, for instance, a teacher from the Sverdlovsk region in Russia was fired following a denunciation by colleagues. He was accused of “discrediting the army” for sharing poems by dissident poets on the Russian social network VKontakte.

In September, a court in the Russian city of Kazan sentenced a blogger to three years in prison for a social media post urging the desertion of Russian military personnel involved in the war in Ukraine.

Cases like that are becoming more prevalent in Russia, and the punishments are getting stricter.

Russian society has become very polarized since the invasion of Ukraine, Roskomsvoboda’s co-founder Stanislav Shakirov told Recorded Future News in an interview earlier this month. “Those who did not show loyalty to the war ended up on the side of the political opposition,” he added.

Chatbots are just one of the tools the government uses to spy on its citizens. In February, Roskomnadzor launched an internet surveillance system called Oculus to find “illegal” content online. Oculus automatically detects content with “extremist themes, calls for mass rallies, suicide, or LGBT propaganda.”

Another threat to individual freedom in Russia is the surge in facial recognition systems used for monitoring citizens. Over 60 regions in Russia have installed half a million cameras using facial recognition technology.

So-called “snitch” tools have been released in other countries. Saudi Arabia has an app for reporting activists who speak out against the government, and Iraq’s government produced an app for spotting “offensive” social media posts.

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Daryna Antoniuk
is a freelance reporter for Recorded Future News based in Ukraine. She writes about cybersecurity startups, cyberattacks in Eastern Europe and the state of the cyberwar between Ukraine and Russia. She previously was a tech reporter for Forbes Ukraine. Her work has also been published at Sifted, The Kyiv Independent and The Kyiv Post.

 

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