Despite Putin’s claims, Russian surveillance occurs on a massive scale.
In April 2014, infamous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden made waves when he appeared on a live (but heavily PR-sanitized) Q&A session held by President Vladimir Putin.
During the exchange, Snowden asked Putin whether Russia intercepts or stores communications in any way similar to the NSA.
The answer, predictably, was no. Which was was at best a misrepresentation, and at worst – a blatant lie.
According to an investigation by the Russian paper Agentura together with the University of Toronto’s CitizenLab and the British nonprofit Privacy International, Russia still uses its Soviet-era national surveillance system, which has been expanded to the Internet.
Called the System of Operative-Investigative Measures (SORM), it was created in the mid-’80s by a KGB research institute to monitor telephone traffic.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the program wasn’t shut down, but rather expanded. SORM-2 was created to monitor Internet traffic, including Voice-over-IP communications like Skype. SORM-3 was created to monitor “all types of communication media,” according to Moscow News.
The SORM network can be found in every Russian town, operating through protected underground cables that run to the local FSB (Russian intelligence bureau) office.
Data can then be accessed by at least 7 other government agencies, including the municipal and tax police, border patrol, and the anti-drug agency.
There’s little in the way of legal safeguards. The information is collected via SORM devices installed in Internet provider networks, which the company has to pay for, according to the Agentura investigation.
Agencies who want to use SORM do have to get a warrant, but they are not required to show it to the provider. Hence, there is little oversight over warranty procedures.
An expanding program
Over the last few years, Russian surveillance appears to have expanded.
The number of phone and email conversations intercepted increased from 265,937 in 2007 to 539,864 in 2012, according to the investigation. This does not include counterintelligence eavesdropping, meaning the number is probably a lot higher.
Data collected is also analysed. Using a program called Semantic Archive, the system extracts keywords and builds an analysis of the communications intercepted, including a chart of connections between people, organizations, and regions.
Following the NSA scandal, Russian authorities were given a pretext to expand the program.
It cracked down on Western social media like Facebook and Twitter, requiring them to save their data on Russian servers and hence make them accessible to Russian intelligence services.
Those who resist risk seeing their services banned in the country, such as YouTube’s temporary block in 2012 over an anti-Islam video (the ban was later lifted after the video was removed).
Similar to Chinese censorship, this gives Russia leverage over foreign Internet services.
But with control of the Internet’s back-end administration passing to the UN, some worry that Russia’s power of the Internet will grow, and its power to spy on its own citizens become unlimited.