Central regions | Telecoms, media

From St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, 180,000 webcams monitored Russia’s presidential election

5 Mar '12
In an unprecedented experiment to ensure election transparency, most of Russia’s 94,300 polling stations were equipped with webcams offering a live broadcast of yesterday’s voting, East-West Digital News, an international resource on Russian IT and innovation, reports.

The broadcast, which started at midnight, Moscow time, on election day, ended after all vote counting operations were completed. It was followed by up to 400,000 simultaneous Internet users on a dedicated website, Webvybory2012.ru. As many as 1,600 operators were hired to support a toll-free hotline to answer questions from site users and receive their feedback about technical problems.

The acumulated duration of the videos from all the polling stations reached 260 million minutes, or 500 years, according to national telecom operator Rostelecom, which was appointed by the Russian government to conduct the operation.

Two webcams were installed in each polling station, one showing the ballot boxes, the other one observing the polling commission at work.

The cameras allowed observers to identify some violations of electoral rules. In a St. Petersburg polling station, for example, the process of counting the ballot papers took place out of the view of the webcam, possibly a deliberate act on the part of the members of the polling commission.

“The operation succeeded beyond our boldest expectations, less than one per cent of the cameras didn’t work,” announced Russian Minister of Telecommunications and Mass Media Igor Shchegolev on television at the end of the election day, although he admitted some minor bugs.

“Judging by the polling stations we visited, the Russian video monitoring system exceeds all international standards,” the Interfax news agency quoted Alessandro Mussolini, an election observer from Italy, as saying.

The system “resisted about a hundred of hacker attacks, coming from Japan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the USA,” Shchegolev boasted. “After America woke up, the attacks became more frequent from there,” the minister insisted, without mentioning any attacks from Russia itself.

But the webcam monitoring system failed to convince the opposition that the elections had been fair. While opposition candidates Communist Gennady Zyuganov and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov voiced sharp criticism on the television on Sunday evening, opposition rallies in big cities were scheduled to take place the next day to protest against alleged fraud.

How to find 200,000 webcams?

The decision to deploy webcams in every polling station in the country was announced in December, following the controversy over fraud on the December 4th parliamentary election.

That left less than three months to complete the entire operation before the presidential election, which were to be carefully monitored in a bid to demonstrate their full transparency. “There are not hundreds of thousand webcams and computers readily available in the country,” Shchegolev said in January.

Rostelecom organized three tenders: one to choose the webcams and the transmitting equipment, another to select the equipment to channel important traffic flows, and a third one to purchase additional servers in the data centers hosting the videos.

Among the companies enrolled by Rostelecom were Sitronics and Technoserv, two major Russian technology and integration service companies, as well as Fijutsu, Lenovo, and Samsung, whose factory in Kaluga assembled computer screens. “It appeared that no single domestic player was capable of fullfilling this task in due time,” Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Mass Media Ilya Massukh said in January.

The operation may have cost Rostelecom up to 30 billion rubles, or $1 billion, with the federal budget financing just 13 billion rubles, or less than half the amount. But the government and Rostelecom maintain that the webcam network will be used well beyond this one-day operation. “It will serve a number of social purposes, from distance medicine to education to video conferences,” said Elena Yashkina, the press secretary of the Ministry of Telecommunications and Mass Media.

Rostelecom did not answer EWDN’s inquiries regarding the budget and the way the operation was conducted. However, a source from within the company, who preferred not to be named, told EWDN how hard a challenge the operation had turned out to be for Rostelecom.

Not only was the timeframe very tight, many webcams were damaged or stolen after they were placed in schools, where the polling stations are usually situated. These incidents prompted Rostelecom to re-mount equipment several times, costing the company extra time and money. But Rostelecom managed to meet the deadline, completing the operation almost entirely, said EWDN’s source.
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