Amid Outcry, Russia Increases Online Surveillance

Press and bloggers alike have been reeling since Russia’s “Law on Bloggers” on August 1. It appears as though the Kremlin’s System of Operative-Investigative Measures (SORM) will continue to bolster Internet surveillance measures as Russia implements tighter constraints on online activity. Decree N743 [Russian], an amendment to the August 1 ruling, requires Internet Service Providers to implement surveillance equipment that will monitor all online communications for specific anti-government language (including key words such as “government” and “bomb”).

Roskomnadzor emblem

Roskomnadzor emblem Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Roskomnadzor, or “the Agency for the Supervision of Information Technology, Communications, and Mass Media,” has already begun to take swift action since the controversial blogger law came into effect.

Just days after the new law, the agency threatened to block all access to the Russian-language BBC over an interview with Artem Loskutov, an artist in support of Siberian separatists.

Since August 1, all bloggers with a following greater than 3,000 readers have had to register with Roskomnadzor and have lost any potential use of anonymity. These bloggers are also now required to fact-check their assertions, although it is not yet clear to what standards this fact-checking will be held and what sources will be deemed authoritative. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) criticized the new ruling:

The new legislation is alarming because with mainstream media, including national television and popular newspapers, under state control, the Internet has been Russians’ main source of independent coverage and commentary.

According to WorldPolicy.org, telephone and email communications intercepted under SORM have “skyrocketed” over the past few years. While the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) does require a warrant to monitor certain communications, officials are not required to show these warrants to anybody outside of FSB. The blogging law and following Decree N743 both operate under SORM-2, which handles the interception of Internet activity. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s new decree extends SORM-2’s reach from ISPs to also include social networks and websites with messaging capabilities.

According to Global Voices Online, the new decree requires all websites falling under SORM-2 jurisdiction, including Facebook and Google, to install the mandatory surveillance equipment. Decree N743 prevents targeted websites from revealing technical details about the order. Although there are few comments from prominent international websites to date, Russian-based websites have expressed concerns with the tightening restraints.

Mail.ru head Anton Malginov must maintain both the popular email provider as well as Russia’s most popular social network Odnoklassniki.ru. Malginov voiced his exasperation with the lack of clarity in the regulations concerning the law’s technical feasibility as well as the cost of implementation. Security expert Andrei Soldatov told CPJ this broad ruling allows for selective implementation, freeing authorities to target bloggers and websites at will.

FSB officials have been attempting to address the reality of dissent on social media since the advent of the Arab Spring. In 2012, FSB first deputy director Sergei Smirnov said it was “essential” that the agency react to perceived tensions online.

He said:

New technologies [are being] used by Western special services to create and maintain a level of continual tension in society with serious intentions extending even to regime change … Our elections, especially the presidential election and the situation in the preceding period, revealed the potential of the blogosphere.

November 2012 also saw the implementation of The Single Register, a more streamlined Internet filtering service. Roskomnadzor and two other agencies submit candidates for blacklisting to The Single Register.

Russia’s online surveillance equipment has developed an international market for like-minded governments. Since 2010, governments in Belarus and Ukraine have both implemented SORM surveillance equipment, while Kyrgyzstan developed its own similar system and Kazakhstan adopted Russia’s social network monitoring system The Semantic Archive. According to Infosec Institute, The Semantic Archive provides automated data collection and processing, storage, “knowledge extraction,” and “revealing of hidden or implicit relationships between objects.”

Global Voices Online predicts that the cost of storing and maintaining user data will largely fall to online business owners. Those who cannot increase ad revenue or entice users to pay for subscriptions may go out of business as the cost of operation grows to include government-level monitoring and storage equipment. Those who can afford to implement the new storage equipment must also finance appropriate security measures in order to assure that these large new data stores will not be subject to malicious cyberattacks.

Infosec Institute’s Pierluigi Paganini notes an increase in Russian citizens attempting to reclaim their anonymity online. As of July 1 2014, use of the anonymous Tor browser in Russia increased from 80,000 to 200,000 users in the course of a month. By the end of July, the government had offered nearly four million rubles ($110,000) to any individual or organization that could “crack” Tor’s anonymity.

WorldPolicy worries the trend will continue to worsen before it improves:

Soon, we will end up with a Balkanization of what was once a global internet, replaced by a collection of national or regional internets.

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