Russia Ramps up Biometrics in Transportation

By the decade’s end, 80% of Russian travelers will have to use biometry in public transport.

That’s according to the draft national transportation strategy 2030, currently in development at the federal ministry of transport. However, potential consumers are far from sharing that vision. Soon after the news went on air, government-related national technological initiative Autonet reported that 75% participants in its online poll would trust nobody with their biometric data. Also, 74% ticked “no” when asked if they plan to use biometry for commuting purposes.

There must be a strong reason behind that wide skepticism other than the flaws in the biometric technology. Likewise, Russians remain a conservative nation of traditional values. “Many consumers have strong biases against new technologies,” said Nikolai Legkodimov, head of technology consulting at KPMG in the CIS. “Often, people reject biometry even before they can test the technology and appreciate its upsides.”

However, bearing in mind that the very same nation has previously given strong support to a bunch of other emerging technologies such as telematics, shared mobility and autonomous driving, traditional values cannot by themselves explain that strong aversion towards biometry. Legkodimov said: “Another factor is, people are generally unwilling to trust the state with any personal data.”

Distrust is largely based on poor legislative protection of personal data resulting in a spiking trend of illegal information trade. “It’s typical to register a company and, the same day, be attacked by telemarketers offering services for fresh businesses,” said Natalia Pchelovodova, head of research and technology scouting at J’son&Partners Consulting. “A natural question pops up how could they know your contacts.”

This year’s incident in China shows the legislation’s role in safeguarding biometry-based identification systems. In March, Xinhua Daily Telegraph reported on prosecuting a criminal group that hacked a government-run facial recognition system to fake tax invoices worth $76M. “Without a law dedicated to protecting personal information, China’s enforcement agencies have struggled to keep up with increasingly skilled insiders and data brokers,” the news site suggested.

“It’s not right if implementation is put ahead of the legislative preparation,” Pchelovodova said. First of all, the authorities must figure out how this kind of legislation works. Technically, practices of data storage in Russia and the Western countries are quite different: “Here, user data is stored in aggregated databases while in Europe storage is decentralized to make cyber-protection more robust.”

Moscow sees money in the faces

As I’m writing this article, Moscow is dashing ahead with a facial payment pilot in the city’s subway. Launched in August with 1,000 test users, it has so far been expanded to 15,000 test users with plans of regular operations since mid-October. In the near future, Moscow government will scale facial payment technology up to all MaaS modes including the shared options, taxis, transit buses and rail system, the city office’s press service emailed, while the exact timeline must wait until regular operation in the subway is launched.

Yet, the concerns can only grow when it comes to facial recognition because of irrational fears, said Legkodimov: “People’s fears come from the fact that humans recognize each other by their face.”

A few days ago, Moscow government suggested a 50% discount to the facial payment pilot’s participants, possibly because of issues with expanding the test group beyond the early enthusiasts. Discount is an obvious advantage but it’s not everyone’s tipping point, Pchelovodova thinks. By aggregating data of millions of subway commuters, the city, effectively, becomes a major people’s data broker. People need to feel confident in proper storage and use of their data.

No doubt, facial payment suggests higher convenience than any other today’s option. “After people get used to the technology and acknowledge its convenience, the consumer uptake will grow while declining temporarily after prominent cyber-hacking incidents,” said Legkodimov. “I think, it’ll happen sooner to fingerprint and iris recognition than to facial payments.”

However, should the government be dissatisfied with the organic pace of growth, it may likely force the users. “In Europe where personal data protection is out of question, biometry would be promoted through incentives such as discounts and hassle-less check-ins,” Pchelovodova said. “In Russia, forced implementation can be the only way. I expect disadvantages and inconveniences to be put before the non-users.” That can explain the intriguing “have to” in the article’s lead sentence, cited from the government-related primary news source. “For these reasons, I expect facial payments to go mainstream in public transport and also in our heads around 2035,” Pchelovodova said.

As of today, taking up biometry remains a matter of good will in the Moscow’s pilot. “That’s going to be yet another convenient service for the passengers but not a compulsory one,” deputy mayor of Moscow Maxim Liksutov said. “Our goal is to provide a choice.”

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