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George Orwell’s “1984” was, when it was published, purely a work of fiction.
“There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment,” Orwell wrote. “You had to live in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
Orwell’s dystopian description of omnipresent government surveillance doesn’t sound as fantastical these days.
Two weeks ago, the world learned of the existence of a massive American program called PRISM: a government surveillance network conducting investigations on U.S. citizens and foreign nationals to a dazzling degree. The hard evidence that the government spies on civilians seems to have surprised a huge number of people, but the truth is that colossal surveillance programs have existed for decades.
Russia is no exception. “The Russian system is even more advanced [than the American one],” Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and author of several books on Russian security services, told The Moscow News. “There has also been a massive increase in its [surveillance] activity recently, provoked in part by the Moscow protests … and by the changes in the political situation.”
Russia’s system of legal communication interception is called SORM (System for Operative Investigative Activities). What the program lacks in evocative nomenclature, it makes up for in breadth.
Developed by the KGB in the mid-1980s, it has now developed to include three inclusive branches. SORM-1 intercepts telephone traffic, including mobile networks; SORM-2 monitors Internet communication, including VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) programs like Skype; and SORM-3 gathers information from all types of communication media.
At least eight government agencies, among them the FSB (the Federal Security Service) and the FSKN (the Federal Anti-Narcotics Agency), are authorized to carry out surveillance activities.
Legally, the agency must first get a court warrant. Then it can order a phone or Internet provider to purchase, install and maintain a SORM device on its networks (at the provider’s own expense). According to Russian law, the agency doesn’t have to show the warrant to the provider, or give it any information about whom it is monitoring or why. This way, the government can bypass dealing with the provider entirely.
There is no real oversight process regarding warrant checks, Soldatov said.“It’s all regulated by internal procedure, by the FSB, essentially,” he told The Moscow News. “Supposedly, there’s some sort of prosecutor control, but nobody’s heard of it [being used]. Nobody is required to show these warrants, so [we] never know for sure whether [the agencies] actually have one.”
A written request for comment to the FSB about third-party oversight for warrant checks was unanswered by press time. What is clear, however, is that Russia’s legal surveillance program is continually expanding. According to statistics published by the Russian Supreme Court, the number of legal telephone and email intercepts has nearly doubled, from about 266,000 intercepts in 2006 to over 466,000 in 2011.
Vast, but hobbled
Despite its ubiquity, SORM’s true capabilities are difficult to evaluate.
Technically, the system is more effective than America’s PRISM in that government agencies can communicate directly with SORM devices, instead of going through service providers. In the U.S. and Europe, the government is legally bound to deal with the providers as middlemen, though the PRISM scandal may be proof that the U.S. National Security Agency has, in fact, cut out this step. Service providers like Verizon have denied any knowledge of PRISM’s existence in the wake of the public backlash.
Russia’s system also has a high potential for abuse, due to the lack of third-party oversight. “The system is completely impenetrable,” Soldatov said. “It’s very difficult to organize an investigation of the activities of FSB personnel.”
Ironically, Russia’s real intelligence- gathering abilities are limited by the quantity of data collected and the manpower required to analyze them.
“Imagine a room full of cardboard boxes, and every one is full of cassette tapes of [your] phone conversations,” said Edward Lucas, the international editor of The Economist, at a media panel discussion of Russian surveillance at the London Frontline Club in May. “Is anyone going to have time to listen to it?”
Gathering enormous quantities of data is useless if the information can’t be sorted effectively – and this is true for any surveillance program in the world.
The activities of the state aren’t the only consideration in the worldwide surveillance scheme: private companies are also involved.
Organizations interested in capitalizing on the government’s spy game can develop and sell this technology to whoever’s interested. Corporations like Cisco and Huawei offer SORM devices that are currently being used in Russia. Russian companies like the Speech Technology Center – a world leader in voiceand face-recognition technology – have expanded to the U.S., selling their technology to the West.
Due to cost, governments are most often the major surveillance technology clients.
Moscow-based Discovery Telecom Technologies (DTT) sells a cell phone interception system that works by masquerading as a cell phone tower, attracting nearby signals and allowing the operator to covertly record conversations. The company has offices in the U.S. and also lists the Kremlin and the FSB as clients on its website.
“We don’t sell this type of product to anybody except government agencies,” Mikhail Krasnovsky, a spokesman for DTT, told The Moscow News. “I don’t think customers stand in line to pay $500,000 to $1 million for these systems.”
Social responsibility does not appear to figure into how private companies sell their surveillance technology. The way Krasnovsky sees it, DTT simply provides a service – and the client decides what to do with it. “All government agencies in the world use similar equipment,” he said. “It’s a question of what can be done with a knife: cut a steak or kill the neighbor.”
The industry seems to agree with him. According to a 2012 study by watchdog organization Privacy International, only four companies out of 246 in the surveillance industry had social responsibility policies that constrained business with regimes that might use their technology to commit human rights abuses.
An information weapon
In Russia, information collected by SORM devices has been used as a weapon in political battles.
Wiretaps of opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s telephone conversations, for example, are now being used as evidence against him in court. Navalny is on trial for embezzling $500,000 from a timber company in 2009; the anticorruption blogger claims he has been framed because of his anti- Kremlin political activities.
Over the last few years, transcripts of taped phone calls and covert video recordings of other opposition activists, including Russian statesman Boris Nemtsov and former State Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov, have also appeared on different websites, apparently leaked by the security officials.
Nemtsov requested that the Investigative Committee open an inquiry about the wiretapping of his phone. The committee launched a criminal probe into the matter in January 2012, but it has gone nowhere.
President Vladimir Putin defended Russia’s surveillance activities as a “fight against terrorism” during a televised interview with Russia Today in early June. “As long as [intelligence gathering] is exercised within the boundaries of the law, it’s all right,” Putin said.
The fact that boundaries of law are so broad, though, is unacceptable to privacy activists around the world. “Surveillance is not a fact of life,” Katherine Maher, the director for strategy and engagement at international human rights organization Access, told The Moscow News. “Unchecked, it is a breach of international law, a denial of the right to privacy, and has a corrosive effect on self-determination.”
According to Maher, it’s ultimately the responsibility of citizens to ensure that governments don’t abuse their right to protect national security.
“Citizens wherever they live must push back against this trend and demand accountability from states whenever there are attempts to monitor private communications,” Maher said.Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #23"
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