How Snowden Empowered Russian Intelligence
As I noted this weekend, the Snowden Operation has entered a new phase and is approaching its end thanks to President Obama’s speech on NSA reforms, and also because the ties between Edward Snowden and Russian intelligence, which I’ve been mentioning for months – and getting vast grief for along the way – have become increasingly obvious and are now being commented on openly by senior American politicians.
Just what the Snowden Operation has done for Russian intelligence, especially the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB), which controls domestic security and most of Russia’s Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) capability, has been laid out comprehensively in a recent piece in the Moscow daily Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal, co-authored by Andrei Soldatov, perhaps Russia’s best journalist on intelligence matters. Soldatov, a frequent critic of the FSB and more broadly Putin’s “special services” (спецслужбы – a catch-all term for the Kremlin’s intelligence and security agencies), does a masterful job of explaining how Moscow has used the Snowden Operation effectively for its own purposes, foreign and domestic, so I am posting the article, entitled “Year in Review: The Special Services,” in translation in toto:
Thanks to Edward Snowden, the fugitive contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) who found refuge in Russia, 2013 will be remembered for the revelations of the American special services’ cyber-surveillance of their own citizens as well as citizens of friendly European states and totally non-hostile Latin American states.
His information, which revealed the methods and scale of electronic interception, made everyone start thinking about the confidentiality of private life and how to avoid finding ourselves in a brave new world where nobody will be able to hide anything from the authorities.
For journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary people, Snowden became a hero, eclipsing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. But in Russia, unfortunately, Snowden’s revelations led mainly to negative consequences. They gave the Russian authorities carte blanche to regulate the Internet and provided a formal pretext for an onslaught on Internet giants like Google and Facebook.
Last summer, as soon as Snowden had published his first revelations about American surveillance on the Internet, an offensive against global platforms began in Russia, on the pretext of protecting our compatriots’ personal data. Initiatives designed to place Google, Facebook, and others totally under the oversight of the Russian special services are being put forward in the State Duma by Deputy Sergey Zheleznyak and in the Federation Council by Senator Ruslan Gattarov.
The aim is to make the Internet giants site their servers in Russian territory and store Russian users’ information only here. In that event all the information that we post on social networks or that is transmitted through global mail services, messengers, or video chat rooms will automatically become accessible to the Russian interception system, SORM (Operational and Investigative Measures System, i.e. domestic SIGINT). The FSB, the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), and six other special services have access to it.
The system for the interception of Internet traffic and mobile communications in our country is not overseen by anyone except the special services. Although formally in order to intercept citizens’ information a staffer of the special services must obtain a court permit, he is not obliged to show it to anyone except his superior officer. The system is organized technically in such a way that no telecommunications operator or Internet provider can know what information the special services are intercepting or in what quantity – it is all in the hands of the officer who sits at the control panel and himself enters the data of those who are to be monitored.
As Snowden made clear to the whole world, it was for precisely this kind of unsupervised access to communications that the NSA needed to create all the cunning programs like PRISM, and that is what the NSA is now having to justify. But in our country unsupervised access by the special services to traffic was provided for from the outset and this suits our special services completely.
Apart from that, Snowden strengthened Russia’s position in the struggle to regulate the “global” Internet. The point is that Russia does not like the historically established system whereby regulation of the Internet is mainly in the hands of American organizations like ICANN and others. At the end of 2012, Russia sought to change the status quo, attempting to change the rules through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and proposing that the possibility of censoring information on the Internet become global. The attempt failed despite the fact that it was supported by the majority of the countries of the world, but not by the United States or Europe, where, in fact, the main organizations are located.
However, thanks to Snowden’s information that NSA was intercepting traffic from citizens of other countries, Russia gained allies on this issue. For instance, the idea of placing global services under the control of the authorities is now supported in Germany. Such initiatives will not bring any benefit to users: in general, the creation of artificial borders will lead to the so-called Balkanization of the Internet, destroying the originally free structure of the exchange of information on the Internet and restricting the possibility of free access to information.
The past year or so took place under the black sign of the introduction of censorship in the “Runet” (Russian Internet): A blacklist of websites banned by Roskomnadzor (Federal Agency for Oversight in the Sphere of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media) began to operate in November 2012, and last year grew to a ridiculous scale. Apart from information about suicide, drugs, and child pornography, everything was successively blocked on Runet: perfectly decent websites that are the neighbors of banned sites on the same IP, the Yandex and YouTube services in certain regions, jokes on Twitter. Furthermore the machine is gathering speed: The drafters of new laws are threatening to add works of art to the blacklists, and the eve of the New Year saw the adoption of amendments put forward by Deputy Andrey Lugovoy – who is better known from the story of the poisoning of [FSB defector Colonel] Aleksandr Litvinenko in London – introducing extrajudicial blocking of websites for inciting extremism and unauthorized demonstrations.
The invasion of citizens’ private lives, which has been intensifying in recent years, provoked outrage among communications operators for the first time in many years. In November Vympelcom criticized the system of legal interception of telephone conversations and correspondence (SORM). The company sent a letter to the Ministry of Communications criticizing a draft order by the department imposing new requirements on the system for the inception of Internet traffic: According to these, the operator must store all users’ information for twelve hours.
The FSB’s growing appetites in the sphere of surveillance are nothing new, as is indicated by the twofold increase in the interception of telephone conversations and e-mail over the past six years: from 265,937 in 2007 to 539,864 in 2012. But for many years none of this caused a murmur in the industry. Therefore Vympelcom’s outrage that the draft order is contrary to the Constitution, which protects citizens’ right to confidentiality of correspondence, seems encouraging.
The point is that the offensive against the confidentiality of private life on the Internet has recently been proceeding so quickly that it has even frightened the business sector. Apart from the special services and the law enforcement agencies, new players have emerged in this field. In 2013 the Central Bank fined two major e-mail services – Rambler.ru and Mail.ru – for refusing to provide information about users’ correspondence without a court ruling. And recently the department drew up amendments to the law on insider dealing that would grant the Central Bank access to the telephone conversations and correspondence of potentially unscrupulous market players.
The proving ground where the state has decided to use all the surveillance technologies at its disposal is the approaching Olympic Games in Sochi. There, the authorities have put into practice a comprehensive approach, bringing together advanced technologies in the sphere of the interception of information and field surveillance as well as administrative oversight measures that were tried out back at the time of the 1980 Olympics.
As we have written previously in our investigation, in Sochi, SORM has been substantially strengthened and local providers have been busy buying equipment recommended by the FSB in order to meet the state’s requirements for monitoring everyone, including athletes and fans. Rostelecom has also installed DPI [deep packet inspection] equipment on mobile communications networks in the region, making it possible not only to monitor all traffic but also to filter it by searching for the required information by keywords. Moreover, DPI helps, if necessary, effectively to identify users.
But even this was not enough, and in November a government decree came out making provision for the collection of metadata from all types of communication used by athletes, journalists, and even members of the Organizing Committee themselves and for the creation of a database. This will include the names and surnames of subscribers and information about who called whom and when, all the information will be stored for three years, and the FSB will have access to it.
For the country’s main special service this year was generally very successful. Yet again, the FSB extended its powers. This time, the special service was given permission to conduct surveillance and monitoring for the purposes of protection against threats to information security. Given that in our country the concept of an information threat is interpreted very broadly and includes threats to the spiritual life of citizens and the spiritual revival of Russia, this greatly facilitates the procedure for the interception of citizens’ traffic. In 2013, the FSB became the country’s chief cyber department. In January, by presidential edict, it was instructed to create a system for discovering and eliminating the consequences of computer attacks on Russian information resources.
In this situation the shocking interception, including gunfire, of the Greenpeace activists’ ship is perfectly understandable. The FSB explained that it was acting, “in defense of the interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic region,” and for that purpose all means are good.
The FSB, to the president, is still the special service that cannot be criticized. Nobody from the top FSB leadership was punished for the terrorist acts in Volgograd on the eve of the New Year, which cost dozens of lives, just as there was not a single important resignation after the hostage-taking incident at the theater center on Dubrovka or the tragedy in Beslan. Even though a video by Pavel Pechenkin, who blew himself up at the station, in which he clearly declares his intention of doing something of the kind, was openly available on the Internet from March 2012, this could not prevent the terrorist act. The special services knew that he belonged to the ranks of the Dagestani “underground” and that he was planning to commit a terrorist act, but they could do nothing. On the eve of the Olympic Games in Sochi, this looks particularly worrying.