8 October 2015

Russia’s world of digital control: a conversation


In the English language the words ‘spy’ and ‘Russia’ are fellow travellers. The Russian state is secretive by nature and the methods of the secret state are the methods of the spy services: surveillance, interception, and information control. All of these techniques are part of the political management system of Putin’s Russia, and they have all been greatly enhanced in the last fifteen years. Thanks to two outstanding Russian journalists, Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, we now know much more about how Russia uses and co-opts the worlds of digital communication and information flow to monitor its citizens at home, and shape their world view. On a recent visit to London, Borogan and Soldatov joined CapX for a conversation about their recent book The Red Web on Russia’s domestic programme of surveillance and censorship.

Digital communication and information sharing is largely a post-Soviet phenomenon. Putin’s state had to learn to deal with the internet as it developed, improvising techniques and building a new surveillance infrastructure in an unplanned, ad hoc manner. As a result the Russian domestic surveillance state is very paradoxical: on the one hand it is pervasive, in that it embraces everything from routine interception of private communications, to media control, to internet censorship. But on the other hand it is far from monolithic: it is intermittent, defeatable, and above all not very secret. Secrecy is not the point of Russian domestic surveillance. The point is to send messages to Russian citizens. As Andrei Soldatov says, “they want us to know they are there.”

The Red Web – the latest book from Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov on domestic surveillance in Russia – touches on most of the aspects of the ‘tradecraft’ of the FSB, the successor to the KGB. There is much on the development of the interception system known to the FSB as ‘SORM’ – a network of hardware installations in telephone exchanges (and now in the communications hubs of internet service companies) which feed communications information directly to the FSB or one of its parallel agencies, without the need for issuing legal information requests.

This technology was initiated in the Soviet era; Russian citizens have long expected their telephone calls – and now emails and file exchanges – to be intercepted. Everyone in Russia knows the phrase ‘this is not a telephone conversation,’ meaning anything that would be better kept from the ears of the state. But the most striking revelations in Borogan and Soldatov’s book are not about the interventions of an all-powerful repressive state. They are about the way that today’s surveillance state is in fact an informal collaboration between the security agencies and the private sector, a private sector that includes Russian technology companies, internet service providers, media companies, and also global internet platforms including the world’s best known social media providers.

In Russia the state and the private economy are not clearly demarcated. So it was that the private companies that started to build Russia’s digital networks in the 1990s often had their roots in state research institutes. For example, the first private Russian networking company Relcom was an offshoot of the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, a KGB-supervised nuclear weapons research group. Such institutes had ambiguous, privileged status (the Kurchatov Institute was the very first organization to invite Alexander Solzhenitsyn to speak publicly). But they were still state-sponsored organizations, and they and the companies that grew out of them after the collapse of communism had deeply ingrained assumptions about the primacy of the state as a source of funding, and later, of commercial contracts. Relcom thrived in the early 1990s, adapting the UNIX operating system to Russia and helping to build the Russian internet – but its only significant customer was FAPSI, the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, the signals intelligence arm of the security service. This dependence on and subservience to the state was a pattern that would be repeated, and not only by Russian companies.

In 1999 Vladimir Putin called a meeting with the heads of many Russian internet companies, the service providers and the online media businesses. At that time Putin himself was an unknown quantity, while the internet was an unknown quantity to Putin.

“You have to remember that back in 1999 the internet community, people in general, they all thought of Putin as really quite a nice guy,” says Irina Borogan. “Not very capable maybe, but quite acceptable. There was no reason to oppose him. They weren’t frightened by him.”

But they should have been. Putin wanted to know what the potential for online opposition was, who the internet operators were, and who they depended on. “If you look at the list of people who actually took part in that meeting, it is clear that one way or another lots of them had some connection with the state,” says Andrei Soldatov. “Some of them had some state funding, some of them were associated with the security services, some of them were acting as PR people for the Kremlin. And for Putin, all these people who looked superficially like advanced entrepreneurs, not bureaucrats, people wearing bandannas and stubbly beards, in fact all the time they were dependent on the state. And he saw that not only were they dependent, but they were also easy to divide. And that was when Putin realised, we can control this very easily.”

Last year another such meeting was convened. Irina Borogan describes the contrast: “the atmosphere was so utterly different. They were frightened. The sort of people who in Europe are running the whole of the internet, they were just like schoolboys in front of the teacher.”

What had happened in the intervening 15 years? Many things. The SORM system of communication interception had been greatly extended, and the internet service providers and communications companies that host the SORM hardware had been made to pay for the privilege. Media had shrivelled – companies like broadcaster Media-Most which had shown its power to shape politics had been forced into effective state control, its founder Vladimir Gusinsky jailed and then exiled. Large computer hardware companies like Kaspersky Lab and online service companies like search company Yandex had been forced to relocate abroad. And censorship of internet content had become a state industry.

The Kremlin approach to internet censorship is similar to the communications interception strategy: that is, co-opting the private sector into collaboration is the easiest and cheapest option. Google (which owns YouTube) was the first to cave in on surrendering data and blocking sites and users, although other online providers have followed to various degrees.

“We were not very surprised by the actions of companies like Google because we already had the precedent of China, and that was really a clear invitation for the Kremlin to do the same thing,” says Andrei Soldatov. “But the thing about big internet companies like Google is that we don’t know what they are thinking. They don’t talk to journalists. They do not explain what they are doing. For example they have sent some very highly placed people to Moscow to have talks with the Kremlin and we know absolutely nothing about what went on during those conversations. But, when you talk to people in the Google offices in New York for example, you realise that in fact they don’t quite understand what to do. It is not clear what their strategy is, and there may be no strategy.”

Having no strategy to deal with a determined security state is not a good place to be – especially when the ambitions of the state to control what people say and see online have grown exponentially, like the internet itself. But Russia’s censorship of online debate and information sharing is not intended to be total (in contrast to China’s labour intensive total blackout approach); it is more subtle than that. It is intended to demonstrate that the Kremlin can determine what is and is not distributed online if it chooses to – so companies may just as well comply.

This is a selective approach, designed to make most of what is seen online conform to the Kremlin storybook, and pick off dissidence only when it becomes a serious threat. As Irina Borogan puts it: “they don’t need to spy on all of us. They don’t need to analyse huge amounts of data. Ten or maybe fifteen thousand people are all they need to worry about. Send some of them to prison, but not a lot. It’s about messages. Intimidation is always highly selective.”

What comes next? “Whatever it is, it will be crucial for the future of openness in Russia,” says Andrei Soldatov. “In the online world you have two groups of people –   the state and the companies – whose interests often converge. They have a common interest in localising the internet, for example. It is our biggest worry that both the state and the internet companies will end up working together to shape whatever is available via the internet. It is one thing when you have the state against the companies, but when you have those two big forces actually cooperating that is a worry. But there is also a hope, and the hope lies with users.”

Irina Borogan agrees with that. “I believe that the nature of the internet will rebel against the localising, the shaping of the online world,” she says. “Users will always want to organise a free exchange of information. In the early days most content was generated by established media and by the internet companies, but in the era of social networks it is not like that, it is now created by the users. When everything is going okay, sure, your priorities are all about the shop around the corner. But if something is going wrong a very different sort of information becomes important.”


Authors Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan in London. Photo by Richard Walker.

The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries. Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, Public Affairs, RRP £15.99.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.