Russia’s surveillance state


by Anna Reitman

Cold war politics have never seemed more relevant in the 21st century. Relations between the US and Russia are reaching new lows over geopolitical hot spots while the White House dodges questions about the detainment in Moscow of an alleged CIA recruiting agent.

These might seem like old stories, but a decidedly hi-tech twist is emerging as Russia’s surveillance state comes into the spotlight.  On 14 May, panelists at the Frontline Club discussed the advancement of internet censorship, monitoring technologies and potential impacts on individual freedoms in Russia.

L-R: Misha Glenny, Andrei Soldatov, Irina Borogan and Edward Lucas. Photo credit: Millicent Teasdale

L-R: Misha Glenny, Andrei Soldatov, Irina Borogan and Edward Lucas. Photo credit: Millicent Teasdale

Chair Misha Glenny, investigative journalist, author, broadcaster and leading expert on cybercrime and global mafia networks, noted the “potentially truly Orwellian” implications:

“It is unbelievable what Russian technologists are now developing . . . in terms of digital surveillance capacity. . . [And] this is not happening in isolation. It links up with what is happening in states around the world, including in the European Union and in North America, and the implications of this are truly frightening.”

Over the last few years, the Kremlin has launched several programmes – under the aegis of such agencies as the FSB (formerly KGB), interior ministry and the customs & foreign intelligence service – to monitor and control what goes on, and off, the internet.

One of the more recent programmes, said Andrei Soldatov, investigative journalist and editor and co-founder of Agentura.Ru – an information hub on intelligence agencies – includes software development to track social networks and influence public opinion on the internet. But it isn’t just about the internet, he added, as an “ambitious” RUB400 billion (£8.3bn) programme to acquire unmanned drones was announced, in addition to the state’s interest in voice and face recognition technologies.

Meanwhile, said Irina Borogan, also an investigative journalist, deputy editor and co-founder of Argenta.Ru, “intrusive and dangerous” measures are being implemented in the form of deep packet inspection, which is becoming the norm under the pretext of fighting terrorism. This technology can peer into people’s online traffic and can read, copy as well as modify emails and web pages in real time.

However, Edward Lucas, international editor of The Economist and author of Deception: Spies, Lies and how Russia Dupes the West, questioned the ability of Russia’s processing power to analyse an overwhelming flood of data:

“They have incredible power to do the surveillance, but do they have the ability, the real intelligence to make use of all the stuff that they are surveying?”

The focus of discussion turned to the role of the private sector. Privacy scandals associated with Google in ChinaBlackberry in the UAE and Microsoft’s Skype were discussed, as well as implications of purchases by Russian firms of companies developing surveillance technologiesBorogan said:

“We started to pay attention to surveillance programmes in 2008. As I saw it at the time, this issue would be more publicised in future, but now we see that not a lot of people . . . know a lot about Russia’s surveillance state. . . . But at the same time as surveillance technologies [are developing], now we pay more attention to the companies who are [purchasing them] and to the state programmes [that] support  them.”

Cooperation between governments globally was a cause for concern as well, with a case in point being the approaching 2014 Olympic games in Sochi, in the wake of Beijing’s crackdown in 2008. Soldatov said:

“As far as we know, the supply of telecommunications technology, including surveillance technologies, is [by a] Chinese company. . . . The problem is, how to try to control exports of surveillance technologies developed by oppressive regimes to the West, or to other countries with repressive regimes.”

The issue involves Russian influence on former Soviet Union states such as Belarus and those in Central Asia, which are importing procedures, technical expertise and legislation for surveillance interception, he added.

Although the US is currently embroiled in its own scandal involving the Justice department’s secret obtainment of AP’s phone records, Lucas did note that the while digital capacity is enormous, the administrative capacity may be much less.

Soldatov commented that for example, in the US telecommunications operators themselves monitor interception equipment, whereas in Russia the equipment is installed and monitored solely by the FSB and this technology is what is exported to other countries.

The situation throws a “suffocating digital blanket” over anyone who might be involved in conspicuous activities like organising protests, said Lucas:

“The mere fact that you are trying to do anything attracts the attention of the authorities and then you get this digital-human interface and they start looking at you. What does your wife do? Who are you talking to? Where can we apply pressure?”

He added that although individuals have access to encryption and browser technologies that offer anonymity – such as Tor – using them might result in attracting more scrutiny. Soldatov pointed out that use of Tor in Russia is quite low and the opposition government is still having discussions over Facebook.

In terms of global scope, Glenny commented:

“There is a race going on from companies in China, in Russia, in Western Europe, in the United States . . . competition for surveillance technologies, which are sold by the West, specifically with outrageously intrusive capacities to countries that they know will be used in a very unpleasant way. This is the case with Syria, this is the case with Egypt. I feel that one of the things that Russia is doing with its surveillance techniques is engaging in this competitive race.”

Anna Reitman is a freelance journalist covering financial and global news, based in London. 

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