Analysis of the Kipod “investigation”: accusations and refutations

On February 8, an investigation appeared on the Web about Kipod, a cloud platform for Smart Cities and public safety monitoring. In the video, the authors cite previously known facts that are in the public domain, information that does not correspond to reality, as well as unverified information. According to the initiative, the information they voiced should serve as proof of the validity of placing the platform developer company, Synesis, on the EU sanctions list. The information is arranged and presented in such a way that the audience has a false idea of ​​​​the capabilities and applications of the platform. We have carefully studied the material, and hereafter we provide a detailed clarification of each of the statements of the authors, based on verifiable facts.
1 . The purpose of Kipod 
Investigation says:
  • The authors of the video claim that the Kipod smart video surveillance platform is used for “total surveillance, identifying those who disagree with the regime, and their subsequent repression”. And in the announcement of the investigation, the authors claim that the system was developed specifically for the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • The Kipod platform is not capable of identifying a person. If a photo of a person is uploaded to the system, Kipod can’t just tell you who he is, come up with his name or any other personal data. Based on a pre-loaded frame with a person’s image, the system can indicate that this person was seen within a range of one of the connected cameras. The data from the cameras is stored for 30 days. The company has repeatedly stated that there is no information in any administrative case materials that the detention and/or identification of a person was carried out using the Kipod or RSMOB technology, but at the same time, there are many references to other technological means, such as mobile phone tracking, social networks, photos posted online. If such data exists, it won’t be difficult to make it public.
The Kipod platform is designed for the development of Smart Cities and is built for the markets all over the world. The platform has long been operating in many countries on a significantly greater scale than in Belarus. In the Russian Federation and Great Britain, the platform has been used since 2008, long before the launch of the Belarusian project RSMOB (Republican Public Security Monitoring System). The Kipod system was not developed specifically and solely for Belarus, which is what the authors of the video are trying to imply.
2. The tender for the RSMOB technical operator
Investigation says:
  • The authors of the investigation talk about the tender for the RSMOB technical operator. They emphasize the fact that the first competition didn’t take place due to just one applicant, 24×7 Panoptes LLC, the subsidiary of Synesis, and after 10 days it was this very company that was declared the winner of the secondary tender, as it was announced by the Ministry of Internal Affairs on the public procurement website. “In this regard, in addition to doubts whether there were any other applicants in the tender, another logical question comes up: “What was the real reason for choosing 24×7 Panoptes LLC? Wasn’t it because of the fact that its director was the former security official Alexei Knysh, who previously worked in various positions in the so-called law enforcement system, and his last position was in the notorious OAC?” – they ask in the video.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • The rules for selecting the technical operator of the monitoring system didn’t differ from the rules of any other public procurement competitions, and the complete absence of other applicants in the public competition allows us to refute any corruption assumptions of the authors of this investigation.
For such procedures, there are established algorithms of conduct, and anyone can participate in an open tender. Let us explain how this procedure takes place. In the event that there is only one applicant or there are none at all, the competition is declared invalid. Then a secondary competition is held, the main difference of which is that the presence of only one applicant is not a basis for declaring the procedure as failed. In this case, if the proposal of the sole applicant meets the request of the customer, the applicant is announced as the winner. Questions on the results of an open tender may arise if the participant’s tender proposal was rejected for formal reasons.
The procedure for selecting the technical operator of the monitoring system was regulated by the following acts: a Decree of the President of the Republic of Belarus of May 25, 2017 No. 187 “The republican system for monitoring public security” and a Resolution of April 25, 2018 No. 124/2/49 /4/22/4/8/2 “The procedure for selecting a technical operator of the republican public safety monitoring system on a competitive basis” (hereinafter referred to as the Instruction). Approval of a separate document for the selection of a technical operator was required, since neither budget funds nor state extra-budgetary funds were used in the procurement.
There was only one applicant in the first tender: 24×7 Panoptes LLC. That was the reason for the procedure to be declared invalid, and a secondary tender was appointed. There was only one applicant at the secondary procedure too: 24×7 Panoptes LLC. It’s worth mentioning that 10 companies made a request for technical documentation in order to participate in the tender, but none of them, except for 24×7 Panoptes LLC, submitted their participation proposals. Also, under the terms of the competition, the RSMOB operator has to independently invest its own funds in the development of the project.
As a result, 24×7 Panoptes LLC was declared the winner, since its proposals met the established requirements and characteristics, and there were no other applicants. The final decision on the selection of the winner of the tender, as provided for by the Instruction, was published on the page of the public procurement website.
3. State contract for 20 years
Investigation says:
  • “After the signing of the contract for the supply of the RSMOB service kit between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and 24×7 Panoptes LLC in September 2018, gradually all Minsk police departments and other regional departments of internal affairs of Belarus were connected to the “omnipresent eye”, that is, to the Kipod. The delivery period under the named contract is set until January 1, 2038. What other private commercial company can boast of a 20-year government contract?” – they ask in the video.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • The technical operator of the monitoring system, 24×7 Panoptes LLC, has never supplied – and does not supply – any kits for servicing the RSMOB, as stated in the video. The supply of equipment is not provided for by the terms of the contract.
The authors of the investigation claim that all Minsk police departments and other regional departments of internal affairs of Belarus were connected to Kipod. What exactly they mean by this is not clear. If they are talking about connecting cameras to the system, then 24×7 Panoptes LLC did not connect them, this is not provided for in the contract. Law enforcement agencies are not subscribers of the system. If access to system data is meant, then under the contract it is provided to users defined by law. It’s common knowledge that the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus is one of these users.
Initially, it was known that this would be a long-term project and it would require large investments from the company, rather than receiving money from the state. In addition, under the terms of the contract, there were no guarantees for 24×7 Panoptes LLC from the state for connecting any additional subscribers, paying for services by subscribers (i.e. if someone doesn’t pay for the service, the state doesn’t compensate the operator for any losses), and there would be no return on investment. Also, the state has no obligations in the event of a termination of the contract, and the change of the operator does not imply reimbursement of the company’s costs.
As for the term of the contract on acting as a technical operator, this is provided for by the approved Instruction mentioned above. This is a standard contract outlining the functions of a technical operator of the republican public safety monitoring system, and its standard validity term is 20 years. Such a period is normatively set for anyone who would become a technical operator, and not exclusively for 24×7 Panoptes LLC. Thus, the draft contract was included in the tender documentation, and any company that wished to take part in the tender could easily and freely review it for themselves.
4. Detention of Nikolai Dedok
Investigation says:
  • As an example of the use of the Kipod platform, the authors cite the detention of activist Nikolai Dedok on November 12, 2020. The authors claim that the man “was identified among the passengers of the Minsk subway, after analyzing the recordings from CCTV cameras connected to Kipod”.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • To refute this point, it suffices to clarify two important and easily verifiable facts:
1) in the village of Sosnovy (where Dedok was found) there are no cameras connected to Kipod
2) The Mogilevskaya subway station, which is mentioned in the investigation, is located 76.2 km from the village where the activist was detained, and there are no other cameras connected to Kipod between these two points.
Therefore, any statement from anonymous authors regarding the detention of Dedok with the help of the Kipod system misleads the audience.
5. Search in the subway
Investigation says:
  • As an example of how a search is carried out in a crowd of subway passengers using the platform, the authors refer to a recording of a conversation between two police officers about the detention of a man: “You can look for matches by percentages. 100% rarely gives anything out, usually we work with 50-80%, and when you reduce the percentage – there is a lot more that comes up, and we can view them in a manual mode. <…> When Kipod comes up with a match, it shows a corresponding video clip. You click on it, it opens up, and you can see a fragment of the subway recording of the movements of a particular person whom the system has matched, and what he looks like. <…> Yes, I went to have a look, and there was someone similar in the passage on Kamennaya Gorka”.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • In the investigation, an episode with a recorded conversation about the use of Kipod in the subway comes right after the footage of Dedok’s detention. Please note that these cases are not related in any way. These are two different events. The authors of the investigation cite a dialogue that, based on information obtained by us, is about the capture of a criminal who attacked a woman with a knife. The purpose of creating the platform is precisely to search for dangerous criminals, as well as for the lost and missing people, as we have repeatedly stated, but not for the mass identification of citizens, including those for political reasons.
Let us remind you that the allegation of the EU Council was as follows: “Synesis provides the Belarusian authorities with a video surveillance platform that can be used to search and evaluate video recordings, as well as facial recognition software. Thus, the company is responsible for repressing the civil society and democratic opposition by the state machine in Belarus.”
Once again, we point out that the system is not capable of identifying a person. Based on the photo that has been already entered into the system, it can indicate whether a person was seen within the range of a particular camera and provide the time of appearance, giving possible matches.
6. Surveillance
Investigation says:
  • The authors state: “Subscribers, and not users, pay money to Synesis, represented by its subsidiary company, 24×7 Panoptes LLC, for the provision of technical specifications for connecting their video surveillance cameras to the “omnipresent eye”, as well as connection charges and processing and storing information obtained from this video surveillance systems. Well, it’s very convenient: you monitor everyone around the clock, and the subjects of surveillance also pay you extra for spying on them”.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • 24×7 Panoptes LLC doesn’t spy on anyone. In the video and in subsequent media announcements, it’s emphasized that surveillance has been carried out by the company. The technical operator does not have a legal right to access the data received from the connected cameras of its subscribers. Only subscribers and users of the system, as defined by law, have access to the data.
Services that are paid for by subscribers are specified in the Resolution of the Council of Ministers No. 348. In addition, the technical support fee was provided, so that subscribers don’t have to buy equipment from the company or look for suppliers, especially if they have their own cameras. The fee received from subscribers is used by the technical operator to cover the costs of providing communication channels, server facilities and software development.
7. Service fees
Investigation says:
  • According to the authors, “3 out of 8 law enforcement agencies are connected to the tracking system for free. Who then pays for access to the RSMOB for the other five agencies, as well as the subscription fees for CCTV cameras installed on the buildings of the security forces, who pays? In addition, the company keeps silent about the fact that it is the only technical operator of RSMOB, it has a government contract for the next 20 years and has the right to charge for its services, while numerous subscribers are forced by the state to buy these services in order to connect them to the “omnipresent eye“.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • The technical operator’s services are paid for by subscribers (business entities, organizations and individual entrepreneurs whose cameras are connected to the monitoring system), which is obvious. At the same time, subscribers have access to data from their cameras connected to the platform and use them for their benefit.
Users of the system are defined by law (clause 4 of the Decree No. 527) and have access to data received from subscribers’ cameras, but they are not the customers of the service provided by the technical operator. Not a single camera in any department of Internal Affairs is connected to Kipod precisely for the same reason. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Border Committee and other departments are not subscribed to RSMOB.
All information on the terms of the contract of the technical operator, regulations regarding the operation of the monitoring system, connection to the system and other related data is publicly available on the Internet.
8. The number of cameras
Investigation says:
  • As stated in the video, “in accordance with the Resolution of the Minsk City Executive Committee of July 29, 2021 No. 2268, a total of 1,091 objects were ordered to be connected in Minsk. And earlier, in accordance with the Resolution of the Council of Ministers No. 89 of June 30, 2020, 261 objects have already been connected to the system. It’s noted that such decisions were made by all regional executive committees.They were supposed to connect 1393 objects in the Minsk region, 1090 objects in Grodno and 867 objects in Mogilev.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • The information about the number of connected cameras is simply not true. The investigation claims that, by decision of the regional executive committees, several thousand sites are going to be connected to Kipod. But you should not equate the number of cameras and sites that are to be installed, to the number of cameras and sites that are actually connected to the monitoring system. To date, only a small proportion of those planned sites is actually connected to the monitoring system, in accordance with resolutions or decrees mentioned above.
Plans for connecting cameras do not correlate with the imposed sanctions in any way. Over the entire time of the platform’s existence, about 1,000 cameras across the country have been connected to it, and the majority of them are located in the Minsk subway. The installation data and the number of cameras connected to the system is verified and confirmed by an independent expert report provided by the company to the EU Court.
9. The platform integration
Investigation says:
  • The authors of the article claim that the Kipod system is integrated with the databases of the Ministry of Internal Affairs containing photos of people, and mention one of the paragraphs of the Decree of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus No. 181 of 07/02/2019 “Uniformed technical requirements for video analytics software”.
“A version of the Kipod platform, on basis of which the “omnipresent eye” works, is, in fact, integrated with databases of the Ministry of Internal Affairs containing photos and personal data of all citizens of Belarus, such as the Passport Bureau (AIS) and the Traffic Police Center (GAI), while each citizen and stateless person who holds a residential permit is assigned a digital ID in this special version of Kipod, similar to the personal number in the passport. Thus, any Belarusian who appeared in the field of view of the “omnipresent eye” or was filmed or photographed by the security forces, with the appropriate image quality, could be entered into the database using this identifier through the AIS Passport the GAI database. That is why all the protests were so thoroughly recorded on video. <…> Remember how the Ministry of Internal Affairs boasted that by the end of 2020 it had created a database of participants in unauthorized actions? – they ask in the video.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • Synesis executives maintain that the Kipod platform is not integrated with any other systems. The fact that it contains the automatic face recognition module, in line with the Decree of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus No. 181 (clause 13), which, among other things, allows integration with third-party information systems and databases containing photos of people, doesn’t mean that the platform is actually connected to any of these databases.
The platform cannot process videos received from cameras that are not connected to the system and is not capable of performing mass identification of persons in the moving crowds.
Information about the absence of third-party integrations is confirmed by the security log and an independent expert report submitted to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the process of litigation. In addition, Synesis has invited the European government or any other government to conduct the external audit of its services. However, no one expressed such a desire.
10. Single frame recognition and mass identification
Investigation says:
  • The following statement was made in the video investigation: Kipod can identify a person with a probability of 94.21%, from a single video frame where a person of interest appears, and the security forces, using the platform, not only identify protesters by event, but can also identify “episodes of street activity” of already detained citizens .
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • It’s worth understanding the difference between identifying a person and searching for a similar image of a person in a frame. The system is designed to search for predefined faces in the video stream from connected online cameras. Moreover, the platform is not capable of mass identification. One can only find a person who is known to the system, i.e. whose data was entered into the system by the person conducting the search. At the same time, it’s important to understand that the image comes only from the cameras connected to the system, and the archive (data storage) has a time limit of 30 days. This means that the system has access to information available for the last 30 calendar days, and the older videos received from the cameras are automatically deleted.
For example, if you enter into the system a photo of a person who disappeared five days ago, the platform will return probable matches if the person they are looking for was captured by a camera connected to the system during those days. But if a person has been missing for over a month, one can only hope for any real-time matches.That is, if you upload a photo to the system, it will not provide you with an answer as to who this person is and what his name is, because the system cannot identify him. Based on the preloaded frame, the system can indicate that a person was seen in the field of view of one of the connected cameras.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, if the person is not known to the system, the operators can try to find the unidentified person by the photo. To do this, they have to wait in real time for this unidentified person to appear in the range of ​​​​the cameras of the RSMOB system. If this happens, operators can send authorities to this place to establish the person’s identity. We note that such a search is only possible in real time and has to be done manually, and in terms of its mechanics, it looks more like a special operation to capture a dangerous criminal than a “mass identification of protesters”.
It should also be noted that not all cameras that are connected to the monitoring system are technically configured and / or suitable for face recognition, and therefore face recognition based on information from such cameras is not performed.
Moreover, the legal framework of the monitoring system provides for setting up only a part of the cameras for face recognition at the facility. This means that only a small fraction of all connected cameras provide facial recognition in general.
11. Renaming of the companies
Investigation says:
  • The authors of the material say that the company’s managing directors withdrew from the ownership and re-registered the business to other people, as well as renaming the companies. Alexander Shatrov is said to have ceded almost all his share to one of his employees, Yuri Serbenkov, a former police lieutenant colonel from GUBOPIK, which, as they said, was “no coincidence.” They listed the companies that he also headed, namely: Synesis Stratus LLC, Synesis Phoenix LLC, Synesis Sport LLC, Sababa Labs LLC, Atlas Acme LLC.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • Earlier, the company provided clarifications on the matter of corporate changes in Synesis LLC, indicating that regardless of whether Alexander Shatrov leaves the list of major shareholders or not, this will not lift sanctions from the company, and actions to sell shares are associated with the confidence that the company has a high chance of a successful outcome in it’s court case to be removed from the sanctions list, thus the goal was tominimize the contiguity points between corporate and personal sanctions directly against Shatrov.
The renaming of the companies has already been reported earlier. This decision is associated with potential problems for companies not affected by the sanctions and their partners, and is entirely due to the “Synesis” part in their names. The name of the sanctioned Synesis was not changed.
The information that Yuriy Serbenkov is or was the head of Synesis Stratus LLC, Synesis Sport LLC, Atlas Akme LLC and other companies mentioned in the video (with the exception of the already liquidated Synesis Phoenix LLC) is not true. Anyone interested can check the information about the leaders of these companies on the website of the Unified State Register of Legal Entities and Individual Entrepreneurs in the section “Check the status of a business entity”, by selecting the option “Request detailed information about the entity”.
At the time of publication of the material, Synesis Phoenix LLC was liquidated and Synesis Sport LLC was renamed into Atlas Akme LLC.
The detailed information about the company is very easy to check, it doesn’t require any special paths of access, and this will allow you to draw your own conclusions about the quality of the published investigation.
12. The plot of land
Investigation says:
  • The authors of the published material claim that Alexander Shatrov “in the name of his wife received a plot of land No. 7 in the horticultural society “Moya Otrada”, located on the territory of the Goransky village council in the Minsk region, on which, by the summer of 2018, he built a house within an area of 349.6 square meters”.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • The plot of land in the horticultural society “Moya Otrada” in the Minsk region was not received, but purchased on the secondary market, at a market price of $20,000, which is confirmed by the relevant documents. The house was built at the personal expense of a businessman who has been working in the field of information technology for over 20 years and duly pays all his taxes.
Moreover, the plot of land was bought in 2014, long before the launch of RSMOB, so any contextual manipulations like “receiving land as a gift in view of his special merit” are either due to an insufficient level of the authors’ knowledge or deliberate misinformation.
13. Belarusian citizenship
Investigation says:
  • The authors state that “in view of his special merit” on April 6, 2018, Alexander Shatrov “acquired Belarusian citizenship without parting with his Russian passport.”
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • Alexander Shatrov was issued a Belarusian passport not for some “special merit”, but on the general basis provided for by Article 15 of the Law of the Republic of Belarus, “Citizenship of the Republic of Belarus”, as his mother is a Belarussian native. Moreover, having become a citizen of the Republic of Belarus, Alexander ceased to be a citizen of Russia, which completely contradicts the above information.
14. Viber
Investigation says:
  • The authors of the investigation claim that Shatrov’s Synesis once worked on the creation of Viber, a popular messenger in Belarus, which is voluntarily installed by careless country citizens on their smartphones. And again, it is no coincidence that the office of Viber Media LLC is located at the already known address of Platonova, 20B.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • Synesis was involved in the development of Viber until 2011. Viber rented an office in the business center, at the same address where the Synesis company offices are located. Since 2011, Synesis has had no dealings with Viber, and the office of the developers of the messenger has been located at a different address for a number of years. This is well-known and accessible information that is easy to check on the website of the Unified State Register of Legal Entities and Individual Entrepreneurs, as well as performing a simple and very basic search in Google.
15. Change of technical operator
Investigation says:
  • In the published material there is another recording, and, according to its authors, it was a conversation among the policemen. And, according to their opinion, in the event of changing to a different technical operator, further participation of Synesis in the project is not ruled out: “From this conversation, we learn that instead of 24×7 Panoptes LLC, a subsidiary of Synesis, the state run enterprise Beltelecom should become the sole technical operator of RSMOB. Thus, Beltelecom will become a kind of coordinator-in-charge for the technical part of the system functions, which doesn’t rule out further participation of Synesis in the project, in particular, in order to provide Beltelecom with software for video analytics and data processing. Well, how could it be otherwise, because we remember that the state contract that was originally signed with 24×7 Panoptes LLC, expires only in the distant 2038”, – says a representative of the investigation.
Synesis states: (verifiable facts)
  • From the moment of changing the RSMOB technical operator status to Beltelecom, Synesis will not participate in the project in any way. The change of the operator means the termination of the contract with 24×7 Panoptes LLC.
Of the information presented as facts in the investigation, only a few correspond to reality, for example, the one that Shatrov became a citizen of Belarus, and none of them have anything to do with the accusations that the EU Council brought against Synesis and Alexander Shatrov personally.
The investigation contains a large amount of unverified or false information, as well as outdated events that are presented as relevant. In our opinion, this material was created and published for the sole purpose of influencing the Council of the EU.
As a reminder, such publications, which are usually unverified, are used by the EU Council as evidence in their case against Synesis. For almost a year and a half, the Council of the EU has not produced a single piece of factual evidence, as well as there is no evidence that the detention and / or identification of a person was carried out using Kipod or RSMOB technology. In addition, many of these publications were subsequently deleted from “the initiative channel”, which repeatedly acted as the primary source of news about the company (for example, the news about the installation of cameras in courtyards), for which they published no refutations.
The first hearings in the EU Court will take place before the end of this year, but in February, the EU Council is scheduled to review its decisions on sanctions.