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How Snowden Empowered Russian Intelligence

January 20, 2014

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.

There it is, folks, the truth about the FSB and Putin’s Russia, which are hosting Mr. Snowden. It would be nice if “free speech defenders” and “anti-secrecy advocates” like Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald, not to mention Edward Snowden, occasionally mentioned any of this, which is vastly more invasive of citizen privacy than anything done in any Western country, but somehow I wouldn’t expect them to anytime soon.

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25 Comments
  1. A reader permalink

    But the NSA is EEEEEEEVIL! The US/UK are EEEEEVIL! Ugh. I wish the “end” of the Snowden Operation meant we’d never have to see/hear from the likes of Greenwald again, but we all know that’s like wishing for unicorns.

    Thanks for continuing to write about this. I was genuinely saddened to see some who decided it wasn’t worth dealing with people who keep asking questions because they didn’t get the answer they want to hear/other trolls anymore. Again, thanks.

  2. Ditto the previous comment…really appreciate your writings and twitterings. It’s been obvious to anyone with even the slightest bit of IR knowledge (or skepticism) that the surface narrative was false, especially if you pay attention to the selective outrage/releases (and lack of, in other cases). I am just anxious to see how this all plays out. How far do you think the US gov will go in laying out the truths of what really happened? I don’t expect them to publish classified info, but it would do a world of good to call the bluffs of those parties involved.

    Thanks again and keep up the coverage!

    • Thanks for your feedback. It is my hope that, once the IC damage assessment of the Snowden case is complete – which will be some some time yet as the case is so vast and is still in play – the public will be given an UNCLAS version, an EXECSUM at least, so we can know openly the outlines of the damage wrought here.

  3. INTERESTING FOLLOW-UP !

    Planning to re-blog and circulate among some of the “bitter enders”. :)

  4. Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Great follow-up: this time with specifics !
    Thanks again, Dr. Schindler !!

  5. Bill permalink

    The pot calling the kettle black.

    All of this is standard operating procedures in any developed country in the world. Russia has a real domestic terrorism problem sponsored by foreign countries. Big event coming soon, who would want a Munich like massacre ?

    “The aim is to make the Internet giants site their servers in Russian territory and store Russian users’ information only here”

    About time. Would you like to have US citizens data stored in Russia ? If Snowden is a fine pretext, well good for them, they did not need one. European intelligence has been advising for years to stay away from US based clouds, emails and other IT services.

    Until now, apart from NSA programs codenames, Snowden leaks have not revealed anything. It is chicken feed.
    So what a contractor like Snowden did really get access to ? Given the number of badly vetted contractors working inside the US IC how many are working for foreign powers ? How come US CI is always so bad ?

    These are more interesting issues than the Snowden telenovela. To each its own propaganda.

  6. MarqueG permalink

    This is an excellent find, John. I particularly like the implicit SIGINT intelligence gathering tip for us uninitiated outsiders: Browse the foreign press!

  7. Last August, I had a blog post, “What Does Putin Want With Snowden?’ Fred Weir, the self-described “red diaper baby” had one piece on some of this in late July in the Christian Science Monitor — I elaborated further and include the translations of the relevant Russian media here:

    http://3dblogger.typepad.com/minding_russia/2013/08/what-does-putin-want-with-snowden-and-google-visits-the-duma-on-data-protection.html

    I outlined the argument that Soldatov is now articulating in his year-end round-up of developments — Snowden was needed for Putin’s bid for a “Sovereign Internet” — control not only of “Ru.net” or the Russian part of the Internet — but control of the global Internet as well.

    At that time Google was rushing to make nice to a State Duma Commission to investigate the counterfoils needed to repel NSA snooping revealed by Snowden. They even invited Snowden to get involved with this Commission. It’s not clear if he ever did, but he didn’t have to — the already-coopted State Duma is quite capable of becoming co-opted by Putin even further all on its own.

    There is a war for the Ru.net by technologists in Russia but it is complicated — some of the people happy to gain freedom for the technological class and its works aren’t keen on other kinds of human rights opposition to the Kremlin, and tend to make deals with the Kremlin, an old story in Russia at here at home.

    Much as the Kremlin infiltrated peace movements, and then later human rights movements to turn policies its way, so now the Kremlin is infiltrating the “transparency” and privacy and encryption movements. And the results play out in international fora, such as the ITU and IGF meetings and much else, and they play out on social media everywhere. So many modern inventions to make Russian cooptation easier!

    But the same tools that the Kremlin would love to coopt and own are also part of its undoing. So the job is just to keep recording and documenting and eventually it will pay off.

  8. Would you mind if I posted the full translation to a message board where we’ve been discussing Snowden? I didn’t want to copy the whole thing without your permission. I would, of course, provide a link back to this site for further information..

    Thank you!

  9. bob permalink

    Don’t know if you read this. Interesting in depth on them. But if you try and ignore the political issues, you kind of see three megalomaniacs who are pretty much self interested:

    http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116253/edward-snowden-glenn-greenwald-julian-assange-what-they-believe?utm_content=buffer6bf27&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

    • Excellent piece, only depressing thing is it took the MSM so long to publish truths about these clowns that have long been known.

  10. Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate yyou writing this article annd the rest of thhe website is also vey good.

  11. Daniel permalink

    Great article. Thank you. It sounds though as if Russia was just waiting for the right excuse to act, and Snowden provided it – a terrible consequence. This isn’t healthy policymaking. It is a symptom of something broken and Snowden seems to have provided that gift. What else might have tipped an already unbalanced scale though? I am not familiar with your work, so apologies if you’ve already addressed this elsewhere (feel free to point me to it, and I will go read), but do you think that the NSAs actions with regard to domestic and foreign intelligence as distinct from Snowden’s behavior and its effect on Russia were, in any way, reprehensible? If you believe that the NSA has overstepped its authority, what are your thoughts on how the practices can be effectively and appropriately limited? My impression is that privacy violations on Americans were quietly expanding under the radar of legislation. What, other than media exposure, would challenge this if the existing legislation would not under unscrutinized circumstances?

    In case it’s not clear, I’m really asking (not trolling :). I came here to learn more and stayed because your article was well written. Thanks again.

  12. This information is worth everyone’s attention. Where can I find out
    more?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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