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MOSCOW -- As soon as the digital code is created on a cellphone, the clock is ticking. It allows three hours to shop at the nearest grocery store or pharmacy, or visit a doctor. One hour is allotted to walk the dog. Taking out the trash should take no more than 30 minutes.

Russia's Nizhny Novgorod region, about 250 miles northeast of Moscow, boosted its coronavirus-control measures Saturday by adding a system of downloadable QR codes -- those square bar code mazes of lines and boxes -- in the latest attempt to use tracking technology to battle the pandemic.

But Moscow -- which normally sets the tone for the rest of the country -- backed off from deploying a similar system of time-specific QR codes. Moscow officials said a decrease in foot traffic around the capital made the plan unnecessary.

The decision came as Moscow's mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, acknowledged that "a huge number of questions arose" about requiring a QR-code pass to move around the city. And opposition politicians and rights groups pushed back hard.

Daria Besedina, a Moscow opposition lawmaker, said the measures were akin to a "digital concentration camp."

Moscow's about-face on the QR codes is more than a simple change of plans. Russia under President Vladimir Putin appears to be less willing to embrace the kind of sweeping state-run tracking favored by other authoritarian nations amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, perhaps mindful of provoking public anger and worry that the monitoring could become a permanent fact of life.

In a televised national address Thursday, Putin transferred the responsibility of adopting coronavirus-related restrictions to local governments. That's turned some of Russia's regions into testing grounds for how much increased surveillance citizens will accept while also sheltering the Kremlin from any blowback.

Russia's confirmed coronavirus cases have multiplied in the past two weeks. There are almost 5,400 confirmed cases and 45 deaths.

Still, the relatively low level of spread has not yet pushed Putin's government to make decisions on whether to follow other countries and ramp up the state-surveillance machinery beyond facial recognition.

China's measures have included drones and digital bar codes on mobile apps that reveal a person's health status. Singapore rolled out an app that uses Bluetooth signals between cellphones to see if potential carriers of the coronavirus have been in close contact with other people. Israel is tracking its citizens through their cellphone location data.

Russia's parliament swiftly passed legislation last week creating severe penalties, including a possible prison sentence, for breaking quarantine rules. In Moscow, police patrols are light, but still do random stops to ensure people are shopping or have other legitimate business away from home, such as a medical visit. The city's authorities also warned that its more than 170,000 cameras are watching for anyone trying to skirt the rules.

"We think it can lead to unauthorized access and therefore to the mass infringement of people's privacy," said Sarkis Darbinyan of Roskomsvoboda, a digital rights group. "This is a concern right now in the Russian society."

Moscow officials say the QR system still remains an option in the capital, which has about 70 percent of Russia's confirmed coronavirus cases. Sobyanin, the city's mayor, said the QR-code passes are ready for use and will be required "in case of an unfavorable development in the epidemiological situation, or in the case of an increase in the number of violations of the stay-at-home order."

Experts were skeptical that Moscow could have the system functional quickly.

Andrei Soldatov, author of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia's Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries, said it would entail "building up an entirely new huge database from scratch and then getting all people living in Moscow to provide their personal data to that database."

But he added that "when fear runs the city, as it is in Moscow these days, the authorities could do almost anything in terms of surveillance."

Moscow is opting against testing that with its general population for now.

"These measures are absolutely crazy, and they will not only allow enforcement in this case," said the opposition lawmaker Besedina. "It is something that will open a possibility for later misuse when controlling people."

He added, "I fear that there's a danger, because when you crack down on people, when you stop trusting them, the mistrust is mutual."

Information for this article was contributed by Svetlana Ivanova of The Washington Post.

A Section on 04/06/2020

Print Headline: Virus testing Russia surveillance

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