Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 3: Surveillant Assemblage

In our third blog post of our book chapter, on which these posts are based, we turn the next part of our chapter where we discuss theories of surveillant assemblage.

Haggerty and Ericson proposed a theory of surveillant assemblage in 2000 in the British Journal of Sociology. This develops Deleuze’s control society ideas: human bodies are abstracted “from their territorial settings, … separating them into a series of discrete flows. These flows are then reassembled in different locations as discrete and virtual ‘data doubles’. The surveillant assemblage transforms the purposes of surveillance and the hierarchies of surveillance, as well as the institution of privacy.” Like Deleuze, emphasis is on the seamlessness, continuity, and ability of the system to ‘modulate’ itself. However, the Moscow case gives cause to inject a note of reality – in our chapter we write about ‘a collapse of upravliamosti [manageability]. The Moscow QR assemblage demonstrated the relative powerlessness of the digital overseer precisely because it was itself a hybrid assemblage of ‘technocratic phantasms of City Hall, infectious viruses, disobedient bodies, dependent taxi-drivers, at-risk-of-infection police-officers,  masks and gloves, different kinds of smartphones, unstable apps, electronic passes and their print-outs, crashing platforms, and financial penalties.’ In reality we observe interruption, discontinuity, and detuning as the attributes of technosocial control.

In a much more recent Deleuzian approach, Mark Andrejevic proposes three defining characteristics of automated surveillance: operationalism, environmentality and framelessness. In each case Andrejevic highlights how these supplement Deleuze’s insights because they illustrate how the control society reveals the post-representational character of surveillance. The capacity for the semi-autonomous system of control to pre-empt or predict is key to this movement. But, this is only possible by virtue of comprehensive monitoring in a multi-scalar way – i.e. of populations and individuals in a defined shared environment. The Moscow case is interesting as it stretches this task to the most ambitious frame, possibly even exceeding that attemped in China – for Moscow has arguably freer mobility. Operationalism refers to the capacity of the system to respond to inputs; environmentality – to the way the system is able to adjust the context of action; framelessness – to the limitless potential for the system to granulate data collection. Andrejevich rightly notes the antipathy towards (or perhaps better, the absence of) the political, and the de-subjectivation of the person or human in the logic of his elaboration of control society. Operation replaces deliberative action in a way that inevitably results in perilous technoutopian thinking. Green (2019), like Andrejevic, sees the problem of the control society in the unstated assumptions about the conflict in deliberation about the embedded values in technology. In what is now a staple critique, all operationalisations of control efface what are at root political decisions about the value of outcomes and the relative value of citizens – whether prioritizing car flow over public transport, or marking ethnic minorities as a higher risk for criminality. 

However, again, we return to the reality of Moscow – where in the QR saga the checking of codes, like the enforcement of masks, develops into a simulacrum – it masks reality. A great example being police-officers using broken scanners to pretend to scan QRs, or tapping random numbers into a device whose interface is broken. In the last part of our chapter, we analyse the Social Monitoring app in Moscow introduced at the end of April 2020. Both infected and close-contacts were required to observe ‘self-isolation at home’ and to install a mobile app after having been photographed. Notoriously, the app started sending out push-notifications to the isolating, demanding uploaded selfies at all hours of the day and night, seemingly at random. The selfies were supposedly uploaded to a server of City Hall. Failing to provide a selfie, or leaving one’s apartment resulted in an automated fine  of 4000 rb. Those isolating reported push notifications a minute apart and cumulative fines for infractions sometimes reached 80,000rb. In our chapter we summarise the IT specialists’ assessment of the security and coding flaws in the SM app – how it was cannibalized from a completely different monitoring system, to its coding and resource bloat, to its insecure transmission and storage of personal data (via Estonia to private German servers)

In May, Evgeny Danchenkov, of ‘Glavkontrol’ reported that 216 million roubles of fines had been imposed. Every third app user received a fine, although City Hall claimed that only one in nine did. The vast majority of fines were not due to real infractions: geolocation was inaccurately recorded, face recognition didn’t always work – all things one would have predicted. Internet defence communities were formed to fight the ‘SM terror’ and a class action lawsuit prepared, while the authorities talked of the need for ‘social responsibility’. Ekaterina Shulman predicted an integration of sanitary surveillance and the security services and the emergence of Rospotrebnadzor (Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights)* as an independent political security structure within the Russian state. That looks less realistic now, although certainly it enjoyed exercising power over areas of life not previously its purview. Agamben’s updated argument about a permanent state of exception is worth consideration (the ‘worst possible scenario’ dictates a regime of political rationality regardless of reality). This may help when we analyse how agencies like Rospotrebnadzor are unwilling to give up powers granted once there is no public health logic in their enforcement of the ‘obligation of health’ as a condition of mobility – like their monopoly on third country entry points to Russian airports, for example. Many will have heard of Europeans being turned away at the border with Russia (the point of entry being an international airport) because they flew via Amsterdam instead of Paris. Even now in late 2021, airlines are at a loss at the complexity of the rules on testing, isolation and third-country entry, to the degree that in my last trip to Russia, I was handed a phone by check-in staff in Copenhagen to ‘negotiate’ my entry to Russia with border control at Sheremetyevo. My pretty straight-forward itinerary, visa- and vaccine-status was ‘illegible’ to Finnair staff.

A further post will follow on our chapter. In the meantime, consider purchasing the Russian-language book linked to at the top of the post and supporting our co-authors’ and editors’ work. There are many other interesting chapters in the work.

*Note: Rospotrebnadzor is currently claiming the right to define the level of antibodies in the blood that ensure protection from Covid with a view to extending its remit in the issue of Covid passports to those with high antibody counts. Rospotrebnadzor is not part of the Ministry of Health but reports direct to the Russian Government and employs over 100,000 people. Since 2014 the agency has regained significant powers to collect informal economic rents.

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