Moscow rolls out digital tracking to enforce lockdown. Critics dub it a 'cyber Gulag'

Two police officers patrol an almost empty Red Square, with St. Basil's Cathedral, center, and Spasskaya Tower and the Kremlin Wall, right, at the time when its usually very crowded in Moscow, Russia, Monday, March 30, 2020.

Moscow (CNN)Moscow has introduced a digital tracking system to enforce a coronavirus lockdown -- but critics say the technology represents an unprecedented threat to privacy.

The capital is the epicenter of Russia's coronavirus outbreak, recording 11,513 of the country's official toll of 18,328 cases of Covid-19. "If previously we had around 500 hospitalizations daily, now we have 1,300," said Mayor Sergey Sobyanin on Friday. Sobyanin has declared the digital tracking system is a response to Moscow's rapid spike.
The permit concept is simple in theory. Muscovites and residents of the Moscow region -- anybody 14 years old or above -- must download a QR code if they want to move around their city. By registering on a government website or downloading an app on their smartphones, citizens can declare a route and purpose in advance; they then receive a QR code that can be checked by the authorities.
    The measure will initially only apply to people using public transport, but authorities say restrictions will gradually scale up to passes for short trips around neighborhoods.
    Police will scan these codes and fine people without a permit or if they intentionally provided false information. Those who still go to work can get a special unlimited pass, but for personal matters -- such as driving to a store or a dacha (a country house) -- residents can only get two passes a week, each valid for one day.
    Officially, the pass system becomes mandatory on Wednesday, but authorities are already cracking down on unauthorized movement in the city. On Monday, police cordoned off entry points to determine if drivers had a valid reason to be in Moscow, according to state media and witnesses.
    The government has already used the coronavirus pandemic as a testing ground for a range of new technologies, particularly the use of artificial intelligence and facial-recognition tools. And using permits to enforce lockdowns is not unique to Russia. While European cities such as Paris have introduced paper-based forms, Moscow's effort is more similar to China's use of QR codes for extensive population monitoring.
    But opposition activists warn the new system will lead to unprecedented government intrusion.
    For example, the permit website prompts all users to register at or link their existing page to a government e-portal, which stores user data on traffic fines, utility bills, foreign passports and so on. Users also need to disclose their points of origin and destination, their employer tax identifier, car plate number and upload their IDs.
    Daria Besedina and Maxim Katz, local opposition lawmakers who voted against the system, dubbed it a "cyber Gulag" and "digital concentration camp," criticizing the authorities for mixed messaging about the coronavirus.
    "If on one side you tell people all day long that the situation is under control and only the elderly die, and on the other side you do not provide any economic support, people will not stay home," Katz wrote on Twitter. "No matter how many passes you introduce."
    City officials initially backed off on implementing the permit plan, saying they were happy with the self-isolation rates. But the system was put back on the table when it became evidence that coronavirus infection rates continued to rise. One reason? Moscow doctors began diagnosing Covid-19 in pneumonia patients based on lung scans, saying that the coronovirus tests were only accurate 70-80% of the time.