Belarusian police raid Uber and Yandex offices in Minsk

Protesters fear police forces might have been looking for rides and location data from the two ride-hailing companies in order to identify who participated in anti-government demonstrations.

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Image: Yandex

Belarusian police forces have raided the Minsk offices of ride-hailing services Uber and Yandex on Thursday, according to reports from protesters, employees at the two services, and Russian-speaking media.

The raids were conducted out by officers of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption and come on the fifth day of anti-government protests that have raked the country's capital.

Large crowds have been gathering each night in Minsk and other Belarus cities to demonstrate against the recent election results that had long-time president Alexander Lukashenko allegedly win another term in office with a near-unanimous 80% tally.

Since Sunday, police forces have been patroling Minsk streets and arresting protest-goers or random civilians, in a show of force. Over 6,700 individuals have been detained by police, according to a BBC report.

In the midst of all this chaos, today, on Thursday, around noon, armed police forces also entered two Yandex offices (per TASSThe BellRBC, and employees posting on social media) and one Uber office (per TASSRBC, and Euroradio).

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Image via LiveUAMap

In an email earlier today, Uber declined to comment and deferred to Yandex.

Uber merged some of its Eastern Europe operations (in Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, and Kazakhstan) with Yandex.Taxi in 2017 and Yandex has been overseeing both brands in Belarus.

ZDNet could not reach a Yandex spokesperson due to timezone differences before this article's publication, but in statements to several Russian news outlets earlier today, the Russian company confirmed the raids on both of its Yandex and Uber offices in Minsk.

In a statement to Russian news outlet RBC, Yandex said it had yet to learn the reasons for the raid. Speaking to RIA, the company also added that officers had not detained any employees, seized any equipment, or taken any documents.

Wargaming, the Belarusian video game company behind the popular World of Tanks title, was also targeted for a third raid, according to reports on social media.

In an email, Wargaming said that police forces had not entered its headquarters as its office had been closed since March when the company switched to a work-from-home arrangement for all employees.

News of the raids sparked almost immediate panic among locals today, with most protesters fearing that authorities had attempted to obtain location data from both companies in order to identify individuals who participated in the recent demonstrations.

Both Uber and Yandex.Taxi are known to require access to a user's phone location data when they install their respective apps. Both ride-hailing applications use access to a user's phone GPS service to geo-locate customers and accurately schedule rides.

However, such fears might be misplaced, as Belarusian police can alternatively identify protesters based on their phone's GSM signal collected by local mobile cell towers.

However, in light today's impromptu raids and the recent mass-arrests, Belarusian protesters are now advising each other on social media to leave their phones at home while attending future demonstrations, and not using taxis to move around.

"We have no chance," a protester who tipped ZDNet earlier today told us in an encrypted conversation. "They can muscle their way into companies and get our data, identify us, and beat us, as they did to the ones they arrested all week."