Anonymity in the modern metropolis

8 May 2023 12 minutes Author: D2-R2

Privacy and Anonymity

It has not been the first decade that residents of large cities have been exposed to the recordings of video surveillance cameras, which capture almost every step. But until today, we knew that this video would only be viewed if something illegal happened. But with the advent of AI, which is capable of analyzing every video, recognizing every person in it, linking their images with accounts in social networks and storing this information indefinitely, the idea of privacy is being questioned. Theoretically, if you do not use public transport, do not visit the city center and do not go to supermarkets, even a resident of the metropolis can escape from the cameras. And if you already leave the city, then you are ready: in small villages, the local residents know all the cameras by name, and in particularly remote places there is not even the Internet to transfer the data from these cameras somewhere.

But in practice, escaping from cameras is already much more difficult than we think. Recently, an AI-based camera called DNNCam has appeared on the market, which can work without the Internet and practically does not kill itself, as well as a miniature camera Caply, the size of a flash drive. It would seem that if the question is so pressing, why shouldn’t residents of megacities simply wear hats, sunglasses or medical masks, as in Asia? Motorists close their license plates from cameras that record violations of traffic rules. But everything is not so simple. Thanks to new technologies, a person can be recognized in other ways. Therefore, in this article, we will talk about different ways of tracking and what to do to protect yourself from it as much as possible. Because the concept of privacy in these conditions becomes relative — it is almost impossible to hide from constant surveillance, and with the introduction of artificial intelligence, it will be increasingly difficult for people to remain anonymous.

The main reasons for concern

A modern metropolis is a gigantic and complex organism permeated by information flows. The information makes its work more efficient, but at the same time creates potential privacy problems for its residents, who are unaware of the surveillance. This article is about what data is collected, how and how to protect against it. Why should you even care about your privacy and anonymity? I often hear statements like “I have no one to hide from” or “I have nothing to fear.” There are three main reasons:

1. Informational

He who owns information owns the world. The custodian of information (for example, the state or a private data operator company) has an additional lever per person that can be used at the right moment. It is extremely relevant if you are a political or public activist, or your business is of interest to someone.

2. Human factor

No matter how the data operator assures you that all data is completely safe, people work with this data in one way or another, and sometimes these people are not averse to illegal part-time work – the so-called “hacking”. This is how the black market of data arises, where you can now buy information on almost any person. Anyone can do this, be it another swindler or a neighbor who harbors a grudge against you.

3. Identification errors

If the facial recognition system mistakes you for a wanted person, you will most likely be in trouble – at the very least, you will be arrested. Despite the extremely small percentage of false recognitions, precedents occasionally occur (once or twice). This article describes only the methods of so-called global or mass surveillance, which is directed against an unlimited number of individuals, and does not consider the methods of targeted surveillance. If you are paranoid about following all the recommendations, this does not mean that you are not being followed at all, you may represent a target interest for someone.

Let’s go!

Facial recognition systems

At the moment, there are many large-scale face recognition systems that can be based on more than one hundred thousand cameras connected to a single system. Cameras are installed on streets, places of mass gathering of people, yards, entrances, metro stations and even turnstiles. The algorithm of these cameras is often based on a neural network. So if you’ve ever uploaded a photo of yourself to your profile, it could have ended up in their dataset. In addition, there are other databases that may match your identity with your personal data. Face recognition is not done by the cameras themselves – they only broadcast the video stream, the recognition takes place centrally, on special servers.

The face recognition system not only recognizes people, but also stores information in the database about the place and time of the person’s appearance — in fact, all the movements. The system knows when you enter your driveway or subway, with whom you do it and how often. On the basis of this data, the home-stranger function (on access cameras) works. The data is available for at least a 30-day period and is freely sold on the darknet. Of course, this system also has advantages — for example, it helps to detain persons who are wanted by the federal government. But is it worth depriving the privacy of the rest for this? You can do a few simple things that will greatly complicate the work of the facial recognition system:

  1. When entering the subway, be sure to wear a face mask.

  2. One mask may not be enough – it should be supplemented with a cap.

  3. When passing through a turnstile equipped with a camera, bend your head. The greater the angle between the face and the camera, the worse the recognition accuracy. And if the lower part of the face is covered by a mask, and the eyes are hidden under the visor of the cap, there is nothing to recognize.

  4. When entering an entrance equipped with a camera with facial recognition, follow the same rules.

Mobile Communication

The advent of mobile phones not only simplified communication, but also became a great gift for special services. It became possible not only to track the movement of a contact person, but also to get a list of people who were once in the right moment in the past within the range of visibility of a particular cell tower. The accuracy of the location depends on the density of placement of cell towers (or if more scientifically, then base stations, BS). Outside the city, the density is low, and the accuracy can be up to several (dozens) of kilometers, while in the city center, on the contrary, with a large number of towers, it is about hundreds of meters.

There are also more accurate methods of positioning (the so-called trilateration – determining the distance based on the signal transit time between three points), but they already require active intervention in the operator’s network, and fortunately they are not of a mass nature, but are used in a targeted manner. The cellular operator keeps a log of each subscriber’s movements in a special database, namely the CellID (BS identifier) and the time of presence in the receiving area of this station. The term of storage of such data can (probably) be six months or more.

What shall I do?

Ideally, do not use a mobile phone. But for many, this option is unacceptable, so compromises will be listed below.

  1. Do not register a SIM card for calls to your name. A good option is to divide the sims into “white” – the one registered to you, to which you can tie, for example, banking or government services, and “gray” – the one with which you will call and indicate on online shopping sites. Bonus – if the “bank security service” calls on the gray SIM card, you will immediately know what is what.

  2. The SIM card for calls can be changed periodically – the more often, the less data the operator will be able to collect about you. When changing the SIM card, remember that the IMEI of the phone is stored by the operator – this is the unique number of the modem, which is transmitted when registering in the network. If the phone is designed for two SIM cards, then it will have two different IMEIs (which can sometimes differ by only one digit – you need to look in the settings). Some phones allow you to change it. If you put a gray seven in the phone (or slot) where the white one stood before, you can say goodbye to anonymity. Also, those who have data on the location of all cell tower subscribers, it is not difficult to compare two SIM cards that work simultaneously in different base stations, so it is better to keep the “white” SIM card turned off, and turn it on when necessary.

  3. You have outsmarted everyone and use the “gray” seven. Nevertheless, you can be identified if you wish by comparing the list of your contacts and their data (by contacts we mean the subscribers you call most often). The solution is not to call or send SMS via the mobile network, but to use messengers for this. You should also not forget that through the cellular operator, calls and SMS are sent in an unencrypted form and are stored for a certain time. In addition, all your traffic should be stored, but in the fact that storing encrypted TLS traffic (and now there is almost no unencrypted traffic left) does not make sense, metadata is stored for analysis. In some cases, a person can be identified through them.

  4. Well, in some cases, you can still turn off the phone (in advance, so that the last “communication tower that remembered” you is far from the place you want to visit anonymously. This is especially relevant for some mass events, at which the connection is interrupted (intentionally or due to an overloaded network) – you will not be able to make a call, but light the place.

  5. It is probably worth mentioning here about GetContact – a service that allows you to find out how you are recorded in other people’s address books. This is how you can find out your real data and much more, if one of your contacts was careless to install this application on their phone, and their phone book leaked to the GetContact server. Combined with a database of phone numbers tied to the city’s Wi-Fi network, this service can theoretically be used for mass deanonymization.

Payment systems

Data security. It’s no secret that any operations with accounts (whether it’s a bank card or an electronic wallet) are stored forever and can be viewed in your personal account. Most often, in addition to the obligation to transfer this data at any time at the request of law enforcement agencies, the bank or payment system has the right to process this data, and even transfer it to third parties for processing (usually, such a clause is prescribed in the client agreement, and is active by default ).

Saving money. Your card or e-wallet can be blocked at any moment if the security service thinks something is wrong with your wallet. And if the bank takes a couple of days to unblock and your money is guaranteed to become available to you again, then in the case of payment systems, it can be lost forever.

What shall I do?

Try to use non-cash payments only where you cannot do without them, no matter how convenient it may seem. Well, if you really want to, I recommend keeping a reserve of cash in a safe place in case the card is blocked or lost.


It’s very difficult to move anonymously these days, especially when it comes to moving long distances. And if with international moves (flights) everything is obvious – you need to pass border control, then with intercity moves there are less obvious ways of tracking.

Cars. Each vehicle has a so-called state number, which is unique and can easily be used to identify the person or legal entity to which it is registered. License plates are standardized and adapted for automatic recognition by video recording systems (or in other words, road cameras). These cameras are installed at all exits from the city. Some of them are used not only to control speed, but also to collect statistics on the movement of vehicles, and not only in search, but also in general.

Planes, trains and long-distance buses. It is now impossible to buy a ticket for these types of transport without entering a passport. These data are used not only to identify the passenger, but also enter a special system.

Local transport – metro, electric trains and regular buses. Since traveling with cash (buying one-way tickets) is not profitable in the city now — there are increased tariffs (except for electric trains), everyone mostly uses transport cards. When passing through the turnstile, the number and time of the transport card are sent by the turnstile to the server, so it is logical to assume that movement data is being collected. Now there is also an opportunity to compare these data with the photo taken by the camera on the turnstile.

Other tracking methods

Tracking via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. In many countries, the Wi-Fi network works in transport. In order to use this network, you need to link the phone number to the device. The network operator actively cooperates with the authorities and advertising companies.

Data are collected about the actions of users in the network, the services used, as well as geolocation. In addition to the city government, private companies are also engaged in the collection of geolocation data via Wi-Fi.

What shall I do?

Do not use the city Wi-Fi network, the good news is that mobile Internet is now available at all subway stations and even in some races.

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