U.S. Hardware Is Fueling Russia's Facial Recognition Crackdown on Anti-War Dissidents

According to a new report, Russia’s facial recognition systems are powered by American technologies.
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Russia has been using cameras powered by facial recognition systems to crackdown on dissidents, according to reporting from Reuters. Several Russian companies are using algorithms trained and powered by chips made by U.S. firms Intel and Nvidia. Reuters said that one of the companies even received money from U.S. intelligence.


Not everyone in Russia is happy with Moscow’s war in Ukraine, but protesting can be dangerous. On March 4, 20022—a week after it launched its full scale invasion of Ukraine—Russia made it illegal to publicly criticize the war. Some protesters even found themselves rounded up and sent to the frontlines. The father of a 13-year old girl who drew an anti-war picture was recently sentenced to a year in a penal colony.

The report from Reuters details how facial recognition software has aided the Kremlin in its crackdown against dissidents. There are more than 160,000 cameras in Moscow and 3,000 of them are connected to facial recognition software. According to Moscow court records, the technology has aided in the arrest of hundreds of protestors.

In one case, a man stood alone near a fountain in Pushkin Square with a home-made poster that said “Peace to Ukraine.” A week later he was boarding a subway when police ushered him into their station and explained that the computer system had recognized his face.

The software powering the software was created by three companies: NtechLab, VisonLabs, and Tevian. Tevian and NtechLab are based in Moscow, while VisionLabs is based in the Netherlands. According to Reuters, the companies used chips designed by Intel and Nvidia to train their systems. It also reported that one of the firms joined a U.S. facial recognition test program and received $40,000 in prize money from “an arm of U.S. intelligence.”


Nvidia announced it was stopping all product sales in Russia on March 5, 2022. In October that year it followed up by shutting down all its offices in the country. This was partially due to widespread outrage against the war, but also because U.S. sanctions made it illegal for chip manufacturers to do business in the country.

Nvidia GPUs are incredibly common for training facial recognition software, and it’s likely that these tech firms had Nvidia chips in the country before the company pulled out. “Pretty much any company out there that is doing any kind of AI application is utilizing Nvidia GPUs,” Anton Nazarkin, an executive at VisonLabs, told Reuters.

In a statement to Reuters, Nvidia said it had brief contact with VisionLabs and NtechLab and that it had ceased all shipments to Russia and was complying with U.S. law. “If we learn that any Nvidia customer has violated U.S. export laws and shipped our products to Russia, we will cease doing business with them,” it said. According to the report, 129 shipments of Nvidia products facilitated by third parties reached Russia between April 1 and October 31, 2022. Fifty-seven of these contained GPUs.

Nvidia said it had no more to add when reached for comment.

Facial recognition use by authorities is a global problem. It’s used liberally by both authoritarian regimes like China, Russia, and Iran and American and European police forces. The systems often make mistakes and are notoriously racist. Even the U.S. government has admitted that the systems are biased. Indeed, innocent Black people have spent time in jail in the U.S. after being wrongly singled out by police using facial recognition systems. Despite this, the U.S. and other countries are rushing to roll the technology out.