The Red Web: Digital Surveillance in Russia

September 30, 2015

By Elliot Goat

“This is not a phone conversation…”

                                                                        – Soviet saying

Introducing his new book The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries at an event at the Frontline Club on Tuesday 29 September, co-author and founder of Agentura.Ru Andrei Soldatov began by saying that to understand modern Russia you must first understand the mentality and historical relationship between citizen, state and surveillance.

“The saying – ‘this is not a phone conversation,’ used by soviet citizens – is still in use today and reflects a continuity of some habits we inherited from the soviet past.”

The impact of this soviet legacy is mirrored in the methods and the principles of the FSB’s modern communication interception systems, as well as the “strange” and complicit relationship between the state military industrial complex and the telecommunications industry in Russia.

Soldatov continued: “The most important principle for the Russian system of surveillance is the back door to all Russian communications, which provides direct access to all servers, all networks on Russia soil.” The country’s revolving door policy between state and private sector results in a “complete lack of resistance, even collusion from the industry itself.”

Furthermore, said Soldatov, the “surveillance mentality” seen today derives more from the soviet approach to control, which prioritised intimidation and self-censorship, than from the use of technology.

“Russia’s system of online surveillance is not very sophisticated. The problem is that the Russian state is extremely skilful in sending a message: ‘You might be spied on… Be careful.’ And in a country with a very recent totalitarian past one needs to be only reminded of what might happen and that is enough.”

Co-author Irina Borogan acknowledged the problems of this soviet legacy and suggested that while the strategy President Putin has tried to apply to the internet is similar to that he successfully used to suppress traditional media in the early 2000s, his basic misunderstanding of how social media works post-Arab Spring leaves room for optimism.

“Once again, the Kremlin’s approach was based more on intimidation than mass oppression or technology. Putin believes that all things exist in a hierarchical structure and if you exert pressure from the top you can rule all things. But this fails to understand the internet as a network, which we all know has no centre – everyone can participate without authorisation.”

For Privacy International researcher Edin Omanovic, from the perspective of the state it is less a problem of a soviet citizen mentality than Putin’s worldview shaped by KGB/FSB surveillance policy.

“It is the narrative between how the horizontal approach to new technology is changing the world and being a force for liberation, versus how new technology is actually a force for oppression.”

Omanovic added that this is not merely a problem confined to Russia, but one that involves the billion-dollar private surveillance industry throughout the world, where cooperation between surveillance manufacturers and state defence contractors is often implicit.

For the BBC’s former Moscow correspondent and event moderator Daniel Sandford, while the KGB tactic to focus solely on dissident leaders and “well known trouble-makers” combined with often high levels of incompetence led to a certain lack of control, there is a concern that the FSB’s increasing professionalism – and a better organised and resourced state surveillance programme than existed in the 1970s and 80s – will see the state bring the internet under its control as it has done with other traditional media outlets.

Borogan, however, disputed this suggestion, claiming that what differentiates today from the soviet era is that “technology is getting cheaper and cheaper all the time and to install an all-powerful surveillance network throughout the entire country is ever more difficult.”

The widespread nature of internet networks will, in essence, beat Big Brother.


For Tonia Samsonova, foreign correspondent for Echo Moskvy, it is the actual goal of decision makers who are establishing the surveillance state that is the issue.

“One part of [these people] are actually working for the government, for the security of the regime, the others think of their job as a business. So one might ask what are the real goals of those guys? Are they to protect Putin, protect themselves as a class or to make as much money as they want?”

For Samsonova the danger lies not in the cynical surveillance measures of today, but in data departments and analytical models which can be used to predict issues and trends before they happen and to preemptively target potential trouble-makers.