Future Tense

Subway Passengers in Moscow Will Be Able to Pay for the Ride With Their Faces

A woman wearing a face mask walks in front of an image of German philosopher and economist Karl Marx in subway in Moscow on March 12, 2021.
A pilot project testing Face Pay began on one of Moscow’s subway lines July 31. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Soon there will be no need for a passenger of the Moscow subway to pause in front of the turnstiles and frantically search their pockets for a transit card or ticket. Starting from Oct. 15, a glance at the camera will open the pay gate.

On Wednesday, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced that the Face Pay system will soon be available at all subway stations (about 300). To be able to use it, commuters register in the Moscow subway app, upload a photo of their face, and attach their bank card. Once the user approaches turnstiles, the camera recognizes the face (even if the person is wearing a mask), the fare is debited from their account, and the pay gate opens. The whole process takes two or three seconds. But customers can still pay the old-fashioned way, too.

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Moscow’s subway is the busiest in Europe: It carries more than 9 million passengers every day. (For comparison, the New York City subway average weekday ridership is around 2 million.) According to Moscow authorities, more than 60,000 subway employees have been using Face Pay service for several months already, and so far, the technology has worked well.

A pilot project testing Face Pay began on one of Moscow’s 15 subway lines July 31, and since then has expanded to three more.  As part of the test, according to Moscow authorities, more than 60,000 subway employees have been using the service successfully. However, it seems that regular passengers are not in a hurry to upload their photos: Only 15,000 people have submitted their biometric data, according to Sobyanin.

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Though the new service sounds convenient, many are concerned about the safety of their personal information. So, the authorities are trying to persuade users that there is nothing to worry about. “The facial recognition system doesn’t know last or first names or any other personal data,” said the head of the subway security service, Andrei Kichigin. “Information is stored in a data processing center that only interior ministry has access to.”

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Still, social media users doubt that the primary purpose of launching Face Pay is “improving passenger’s experience,” as officials claim, and instead see it as part of an expansion of the state surveillance system. Since 2017 more than 189,000 cameras with facial recognition functions have been installed all over Moscow. In 2020, Moscow Metro announced plans to equip 1,500 subway cars with 12,300 cameras with the capability to recognize 15 faces per second.

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In 2018, during the FIFA World Cup in Russia, facial recognition cameras were used to identify blacklisted soccer fans trying to sneak into matches despite the ban. Technology also helps to detain suspected criminals: According to Moscow police, in 2020, officers solved more than 5,000 cases using data from cameras, mostly thefts.

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But the system is used not only against real criminals. In March 2020, officials reported that they tracked 200 people who had broken COVID self-isolation. In Moscow, people in quarantine are not allowed to step out of their house for at least two weeks and have to upload selfies to a special app upon the request of authorities to prove they are at home. In March 2020, a man placed on quarantine after returning from abroad was captured by a camera when he left his apartment for two minutes to throw away the garbage. Thirty minutes later he was visited by police.

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Facial recognition is also a threat to opposition activists. In summer 2019, a participant of an unauthorized rally in Moscow, Sergei Abanichev, was one of many protesters arrested after being recognized by cameras. Activists were accused of mass riots and spent a month in detention centers before charges were dropped. On Jan. 31, when thousands of people went to the streets in support of the jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny, police stopped Abanichev in a subway because a camera reportedly identified him as a potential protester. But he actually didn’t participate in a rally, and it took him eight hours to persuade the police to release him. The media reported that same day cameras activated “high alert” warnings about several other people in the subway, who were later interrogated for hours.

In 2019, Russian activist Alyona Popova filed a lawsuit against the Moscow city government, saying that collecting biometric data without individual permission is illegal. However, the court rejected banning facial recognition, claiming that cameras should not worry residents because “they are directed at public places and not at people.” With the new Face Pay system, however, directing the cameras at people is the point—which explains why Muscovites are skeptical.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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