On Wednesday, December 21st, the Russian State Duma adopted a bill that regulates the collection and storage of biometric data in Russia.
To prevent the misuse or mishandling of biometric data by private enterprises, the legislation requires all face scans and voice samples to be stored in a centralized Unified Biometric System (UBS).
A press release published by the State Duma claims the bill “protects” the biometric data of Russians and guarantees that the collection of such data is completely voluntary.
Sounds pretty good. What’s not to like? Well, for starters…
1. Russia’s Unified Biometric System will be controlled and operated by a commercial company
The bill is supposed to stop unscrupulous profiteering and abuse by corporations and businesses. The ingenious solution? Give the country’s biometric data to a commercial enterprise:
The guardian of Russia’s biometric data, the Center for Biometric Technologies JSC (joint-stock company), has the following stakeholders: Rostelecom (49%), The Russian government via the Federal Property Management Agency (25%), and the Bank of Russia (25%).
The Bank of Russia—like all friendly central banks—is not a government agency. Rostelecom, which was initially appointed the sole operator of the UBS, is partially state-owned, but the government does not have a majority stake.
So, basically, the government is handing over Russia’s biometric data to a commercial enterprise that it doesn’t control.
“It is noteworthy that the state will not have a controlling stake in this JSC,” Katyusha.org reported.
Reacting to the bill’s adoption, one prominent Russian commentator noted:
The law is an integral part of the emerging system of digital government (“State as a platform”) following the template of the World Bank, which involves the creation of a digital profile of a citizen and digital money under the control of private structures.
But more on that later.
2. The bill was rushed through the Duma. Why?
Coincidentally, the final draft of the bill was hidden from lawmakers until the very last moment—in violation of the Duma’s own rules:
[Lawmakers] were in such a hurry that they even spat on the regulations of the State Duma. As Nina Ostanina [Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children] wrote on her Telegram channel, deputies should receive the text of the bill three days before the vote in order to be able to study it, and this bill was placed in the State Duma database only this evening.
In fact, the bill passed its first reading before it was even made available to read—meaning lawmakers had virtually no time to examine the bill’s contents before the second and third votes.
The document was adopted without discussion of amendments, which appeared just before the second reading. In fact, many deputies voted for a law that they did not read.
Duma Deputy Nikolay Kolomeitsev (Communist Party) described the bill’s rushed adoption as “a flagrant violation of all possible norms”:
I don’t think Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy had time to read it all himself. We have embarked on the path that the Duma should never have gone down.
Defying the United Russia uniparty, deputies from A Just Russia—For Truth voted against the bill, condemning the legislation as “sabotage”:
СРЗП голосовала против законопроекта о создании новой системы сбора и хранения персональных данных. Он допускает к работе иностранные компании, даже из недружественных стран! Мне непонятно, куда смотрит ФСБ. Это не закон, а самое настоящее вредительство. pic.twitter.com/zT9FIs4afT
— Сергей Миронов (@mironov_ru) December 20, 2022
If this bill is harmless and contains nothing nefarious, why violate legislative norms and rush it through the Duma?
3. Will biometric data collection really be “voluntary”?
For the past several weeks, activists have been lobbying against the bill’s adoption. Public outcry led to concessions: After the intervention of Patriarch Kirill, amendments were added which (allegedly) ensure the “voluntary” nature of biometric data collection.
Are these changes sufficient?
The State Duma claims this new law “establishes that the collection of biometric data is an absolutely voluntary process, and the collection of biometrics of minors will be carried out only with the consent of the parents.”
But opting out requires more than a simple “no thank you.” As the State Duma’s own press release details, Russians will have to submit a written request if they don’t want to surrender their biometric data.
As with Russia’s coercive vaccination regime, what constitutes “voluntary consent” is open to interpretation. Russians clearly understand the danger.
Formally, the law does establish a ban on the forced collection of biometrics and the right of a citizen to refuse.
However, according to many experts, this right is supplemented by another right – the right of the state not to provide any services to a person without submitting biometrics. This technology has already been tested in the case of formally “voluntary” COVID vaccination, without which people were suspended from work without pay.
More than 85,000 letters against the bill were sent to the State Duma. Yana Lantratova, First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Education, said that she alone received more than 800 appeals, and shares people’s concerns about biometric data leaks.
“The public was not told for what purpose [the government] wants to systematize their data and why commercial organizations will have access to the databases,” she said.
Deputy Mikhail Delyagin said that he also “voted against the electronic concentration camp, albeit radically improved and with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church and the HRC [Russia’s Human Rights Council].”
Which brings us to our final point: Isn’t it a bit odd that Russian lawmakers are pushing through a wildly unpopular biometrics bill, exactly one year after they tried to force through a wildly unpopular national QR code law?
4. Biometrics—like QR codes, but better?
Something very odd is happening—reminiscent of the legislative trickery that occurred twelve months ago. The similarities were noted by Russian media:
The biometric data bill … has acquired many interesting attributes. Like a year ago, again on New Year’s Eve, a bill is to be considered that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of citizens and experts. A year ago they were QR codes, now they are biometrics, which for some reason urgently need to be regulated.
Just like with the QR code law, Russians have been expressing their dissatisfaction on social media. Alexander Khinshtein, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, was downvoted into oblivion after boasting about the biometrics bill on his Telegram channel:
You can read some very interesting comments about the bill at Yaplakal, a popular Russian internet forum.
The bill still needs to pass the Federation Council and get Putin’s signature before becoming law—so who knows, maybe it will crash and burn like the national cattle-tag law?
Riley Waggaman is your humble Moscow correspondent. He worked for RT, Press TV, Russia Insider, yadda yadda. In his youth, he attended a White House lawn party where he asked Barack Obama if imprisoned whistleblower Bradley Manning (Chelsea was still a boy back then) “had a good Easter.” Good times good times. You can subscribe to his Substack here, or follow him on twitter or Telegram.
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