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The Moscow Metro — a world-class marvel of efficient mass transportation since it opened in 1935 — made headlines last month with a very 21st-century innovation: a payment system that doesn’t require passengers to produce a ticket, a transit card, a smartphone or a contactless bank card. Moscow city officials were quick to tout the system’s latest technological innovation, one of several over the last decade. 15, the facial recognition system, called Face Pay, was up and running at about 240 stations on the Moscow Metro, a sprawling and constantly expanding system famous for its on-time track record and its grandiose and ornate stations.
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“There are no analogues of Face Pay in terms of quality and ease of use for a passenger anywhere in the world,” said Maksim Liksutov, deputy mayor for transport. To activate Face Pay, passengers must connect their photo with a bank card and the Metro’s Troika, or transit card, via a special mobile app.
Once connected, a camera at the turnstiles identifies their faces (even with masks on) and opens the gates. In theory, it should take two to three seconds for a passenger to clear the turnstile, easing the crush of people at peak rush hours.
It is one of the most visible — and controversial — of the city’s projects to modernize its services, one that takes full advantage of advancing biometric technology and the skills of a new generation of Russian computer engineers. “The technology is new and very complex, we will continue to work on improving it,’’ said Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, in a statement.
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But digital privacy activists in Russia were quick to raise the alarm, noting that the new system is not just about improving service on the Moscow Metro. “It is a good pretext to put cameras at the turnstiles,’’ said Artyom Koslyuk, a director at Roskomsvoboda, a digital rights group based in Moscow.
“This will allow them to perfect the algorithms used for the recognition of faces.’’According to Mr. Koslyuk, Moscow ranks third in the world for the most surveillance on streets and public transport, with some 200,000 cameras placed around the city and on the Metro to help police identify criminals and prevent crime. Russian police have already used facial recognition to find and arrest demonstrators who participated in peaceful opposition protests.
The two other countries that have gone ahead with facial recognition payment systems are China and Belarus, where privacy rights are also of little concern to the government.
(In Belarus, the facial recognition system on the Minsk metro is called Look and Go.) In contrast, the European Parliament voted last month in favor of a nonbinding resolution to ban use of facial recognition technology in public places for police purposes. Moscow officials have tried to calm concerns about privacy invasion by insisting that the images and data collected are “securely encrypted.’’ Roskomsvoboda, though, said they have uncovered evidence that the system is porous, vulnerable to intruders who can use the data and images for criminal purposes.
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Privacy advocates are pushing for a more transparent system of control for this and other advanced, and often intrusive, technologies. “We need to be sure that all these innovations are used to help the people, not harm them,’’ said Mr. Face Pay is part of a broader set of efforts in the city to institute technological solutions. Moscow is undoubtedly Russia’s “smartest” city, not least because it is the nation’s capital, and a focus of government attention.
Its 12.5 million people make it the second most populous city in Europe — and it is growing.