Vladimir Putin had already given everyone the week off to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Today he announced the shut down was being extended for the month of April: “The threat remains, and experts believe that the epidemic is yet to reach its peak in the world, including our country,” Putin said.

Russia reported 771 new cases today which was a 43% jump over yesterday, but the official total is still below 4,000 cases. Most of those cases are in Moscow where, as of today, everyone is required to download and install a new phone tracking app:

Starting Thursday, Muscovites will have their movements tracked through a mandatory app required on their smartphones. Don’t have one? The city says it will lend out devices.

“The main goal is, together with the patient, encourage that he does not go outside,” said Eduard Lysenko, the head of the city’s Department for Information and Technology, in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio…

The new tools will merge with existing street cameras and face recognition software to quickly identify residents who stray from their homes and/or quarantines, say authorities.

What’s to prevent people from simply leaving their phones at home and going outside? Anyone outside can be stopped by police and would have to show their with their personal QR code. In addition, laws passed this week make violating quarantine a crime punishable by fines and prison time. People are still allowed to leave the house to go to the grocery store but only on alternating days.

Russia is also cracking down on “fake news” which in practice means anyone who offers an opinion which varies from the official government line can be fined for spreading “misinformation.”

The AP found at least nine cases against ordinary Russians accused of spreading “untrue information” on social media and via messenger apps, with at least three of them receiving significant fines.

Police statements offered few details but clearly indicated those involved were merely sharing opinions or rumors, rather than deliberately spreading misinformation.

A 32-year-old woman was fined $380 — a significant sum in a country with an average monthly salary of about $550 — for posting on social media something she heard on a bus about the virus in her region. A 26-year-old man was fined a similar amount for a comment he made under a news report claiming a woman died of the virus in a hospital. Another woman faces a fine of about $380-$1,200 for posting about virus cases in her region where no infections were officially reported.

Cell phones started as an extension of personal freedom to communicate with the world from anywhere. But in the hands of autocratic governments, they become a monitoring device used to ensure compliance. I wonder if the new mandatory government app allows the government to turn on the cameras and microphones in anyone’s phone as well? Do they have a government version of Siri listening in for unapproved conversations about the virus? The fact that this is all being overseen by a former KGB agent who plans to be president for life is pretty chilling. Russia’s problems are considerably worse than the virus.