Demonstrators at unsanctioned rallies in Russia risk detention by the police, and nobody knows that better these days than Alexey Navalny’s supporters. These people used to have reason to exhale and count their lucky stars, if they made it home from a protest without landing in the back of a police van. Now, thanks to an anonymous group using controversial identification software, anybody who showed up at Navalny’s June 12 demonstrations has to wonder if they’ve been added to a public registry. In an environment where students face expulsion and employees can lose their jobs for attending “illegal” political protests, being “outed” is no idle threat. Meduza takes a closer look at this new campaign against Russia's oppositionists.
In late June, someone launched a website called Je Suis Maidan, identifying people captured in photographs from Moscow’s June 12 anti-corruption protest. On July 7, the website also started identifying demonstrators who attended protests that day in regions throughout the country.
Je Suis Maidan relies on the controversial app “FindFace,” which makes it possible to find a random person's social-media page on Vkontakte with a photograph of that person. Using images that appeared in the news media (including a gigapixel photograph published by the pro-Kremlin tabloid Life.ru), the website finds people through FindFace, listing their real names and Vkontakte pages. So far, Je Suis Maidan claims to have identified nearly 100 “heroes of the capital” (people who attended the protest in Moscow) and several hundred “heroes of the regions” (people who attended June 12 protests in other cities throughout Russia).
Why did someone create a website to identify Russia’s June 12 anti-corruption demonstrators? Je Suis Maidan’s preamble makes it sound like its creators want to prove a point: “The symbol of protest movements throughout the world has become Anonymous in a Guy Fawkes mask. But in practice there isn’t any anonymity when it comes to street protests. [...] Give up hope — we’ll find you, too!”
Ironically, Je Suis Maidan is operated anonymously.
The app that makes this website possible is FindFace, a service released by a Russian advertiser named Maxim Perlin, who adapted software designed by Artem Kukharenko, the inventor of a neural network that helps identify any person in any photo or video. "I was overwhelmed by patriotic feelings," Perlin said, when he first learned about Kukharenko’s creation.
Perlin likes to describe FindFace as Internet anonymity’s death knell. “This service really breaks all the stereotypes and brings anonymity to an end. Seeing a pretty girl in a club, you can take a picture of her and find her Vkontakte profile in no time, to learn her name and her interests, and even send her a personal message,” he told Meduza in July 2016.
FindFace has already fueled several controversial online campaigns. Last year, a man used the service to identify women in hidden-camera pornography videos, to warn them that they’d been filmed in secret while using public restrooms. In April 2016, members of the Russian imageboard Dvach used FindFace to coordinate a cyberbullying campaign against pornography actresses, writing to their husbands, friends, and relatives to notify them about the women’s acting roles.
Remarkably, FindFace essentially blackmails people into buying premium accounts to avoid being identified by its system: individuals cannot opt out of FindFace’s neural network without paying money.
On YouTube, there is a channel called “FindFace” that uploads different examples of how to use the service. There are videos showing the identification of attractive women at public events, fans at sports stadiums, and police and protesters Moscow’s June 12 anti-corruption demonstration, apparently showing Je Suis Maidan’s identification process. Perlin told the website Open Russia, “We’re not responsible for it, but we’d ask them to take it down, if we really didn’t like it.”
On Vkontakte, Je Suis Maidan has just four subscribers, including an administrator identified as Sergey Kalachev, who did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment. Another subscriber — a Vkontakte user named Diana Asfagan — told Meduza that she’s not involved in managing Je Suis Maidan, but says she followed the page “with the aim of discovering anyone among her friends and acquaintances” who “endorses political opinions and behavior” with which she “categorically disagrees.”
As eager as people like Asfagan might be to blacklist their dissident friends, it seems not everyone identified by Je Suis Maidan actually came out on June 12 to attend Alexey Navalny’s “illegal protests.” Immediately after the website launched, at least one man complained to Open Russia that he’d been labeled a “hero demonstrator” by mistake, explaining that he was in central Moscow to attend a holiday festival in honor of Russia Day, and not to show his support for the political opposition.
Given the website’s messy methodology, it’s a good bet that there are more than a few such mistakes.
Photo on front page: Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA