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Big Brother is unwell: Why Synesis was hit by European sanctions

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The product of Synesis allows state bodies to recognize faces

Belarusian company Synesis became the first IT-company to fall under the European sanctions. The arguments of the EU Council are as follows: the company provided the authorities with video surveillance platform, which allows facial recognition. The European officials are sure that Synesis benefits by supporting Lukashenka's regime.

Synesis has already said it plans to challenge the inclusion in the "black list". The company believes that there are "no legal or rational grounds" for this.

What does Synesis do and does it really help identify protesters?

Changed citizenship for tenders

The co-founder - and most media person of Synesis - is called Alexander Shatrov. He came to Belarus from Russia. It is also known that his father once worked for the KGB.

Shatrov registered his company in Belarus in 2007 because he was interested in the conditions for doing IT business in the country. At first, it was engaged in custom software development, and by 2014, it focused on its own products. This soon led Synesis to a large government contract.

Shatrov, who retained his Russian citizenship, was forced to change it in 2018 in order to work with the authorities. Here's how he explained it in an interview with Dev.by:

"It was one of the lines of defense. We were planning to participate in a tender to become a public safety monitoring system operator. And we felt that this could be one of the risks where our potential competitors could use the fact of my Russian citizenship to say, "How is it that the company that will be the operator of the national monitoring system in the Republic of Belarus is owned, at least in part, by people who are not citizens of Belarus?"

Big Brother is watching

The very tender for which Shatrov changed his citizenship was conducted for the right to become a technical operator of the national monitoring system. Created by Lukashenka's decree, the system was planned as a "big brother" in the Belarusian way. Here's what Lukashenka himself said about it:

"The system [of video monitoring. - Euroradio] that we have should not just be modernized, but brought up to the modern level, so that we could get the most out of it. Recent events show that we could use such a system.

Lukashenka did not talk about "recent events" specifically, but it was said two days after Freedom Day 2017, which was harshly suppressed.

The creation of the system involved not only installing more surveillance cameras, but also combining them into one network and introducing software to analyze the data. The role of the technical operator should not be underestimated. It is one thing to hang cameras in all the corners, and another thing to make the system work.

Already in 2018, a tender was held for the lot "Selection of the Technical Operator of the Republican Public Safety Monitoring System. De jure, it was an open tender, so there was no stated cost. The winning firm was "24x7 Panoptes," a "subsidiary" of Synesis, which was developing a flagship product called Kipod. That is, the very system of video surveillance and facial recognition".

By 2021, 13,000 cameras across Belarus are planned to be connected to Kipod. In August 2019, two thousand cameras were announced, mostly in the capital city.

Kipod demonstration / CityDog

"The software can identify the face in the picture and recognize it based on information from the database," Alyaksei Knysh, director of "24x7 Panoptes", tells Belarus Today. Incidentally, he had worked in law enforcement agencies for over 20 years.

Alyaksandr Kazak, head of the product development, also spoke in detail about the system capabilities on the air of STV.

"It turns out that using one and the same picture we want to register violations, and find the vehicle, recognize the license plate, and find a car or person by color or image. Not only using the face, but also some other attributes, whether it is outerwear, for example, or some accessories: bag, luggage, and so on".

The description is perfect for identifying protesters. But Synesis actively refutes this.

"Not a penny"

In saying that it will challenge the inclusion on the sanctions list, Synesis emphasized that facial recognition technology has never been used and in fact cannot be used to identify participants in anti-government protests in Minsk or figures of the Belarusian opposition. 

"The Kipod platform is designed to detect pre-identified faces uploaded to a database (wanted criminals, missing persons, including missing children, etc.), but is not capable of identifying people from (video) records".

Now let's translate this into simpler language: the system can recognize any person from a special database. But who ends up there: a missing person, a criminal, or a "citizen of destructive views" depends on the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The company also tries to use the argument that they "have never received any payments from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus or any Belarusian law enforcement agencies. However, it is obvious that Synesis did not become the technical operator of the monitoring system for charity. Although it should be noted that there is no information about remuneration in the tender for the selection of the technical operator.

A photo of a person can be uploaded in Kipod to find camera recordings of them / Minsk-news

But the rates for those who connect their surveillance cameras to Kipod are known. They are approved by the Council of Ministers. There is a subscription fee. For example, more than 100 rubles just for storing information.

The more cameras get connected to the system - the more revenue. Very convenient: you get the money thanks to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but not from the Ministry, but only from business entities.

Why Synesis is so worried about sanctions

Being on the sanctions list could hypothetically hit Synesis hard. Yes, the company mainly supplies products to Belarus and Russia, but it also has business interests in the West.

For example, the company has its own firm in the United States. In the fall of 2019, it announced the opening of a sales office in Silicon Valley, and it was Kipod that they wanted to sell. In the same year, Synesis announced its entry into the European market with the support of Intel Corporation.

After the European sanctions were imposed, they can forget about cooperation with international corporations, as well as about foreign sales. The employees working in the U.S. are also in limbo, because if the accounts are blocked, the activities of the branch will be suspended.

This applies not only to the head company, but also to the development centers registered in Russia. However, "24x7 Panoptes" itself is not on the sanctions list -- only the parent company. Whether the sanctions will apply to all the projects of the Shatrov Corporation is still unclear.