Russia: control from the top down

FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation)

During the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the world at large discovered the existence of the
formidable Russian surveillance system known as SORM. Since 2000, the authorities have exploited the issue of security to boost censorship and surveillance of the Internet,
which remains one of the main platforms for independent information. This trend
has gathered strength since 2012, after mass protests against Putin’s return to
the Kremlin.

The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the successor to the KGB, lies at the heart of the surveillance system. Work on SORM began in the mid-1980s. SORM-1 focused on intercepting telephone communications. SORM-2 allowed for the interception of data sent via the Internet. SORM-3 is able to intercept any form of communication – telephone, mobile communications and Internet – and includes long-term storage. The export by Moscow of its surveillance system to its ex-Soviet neighbours such as Belarus and Uzbekistan provides substantial support for their autocratic leaders.

Direct access for the FSB

Intelligence agencies, at least in theory, must usually obtain an order from a judge or a court and present it to the target Internet service provider (ISP) or telephone operator, which then must provide the requested information. In Russia, FSB officers must seek a court order but once they have obtained it, they need only show it to their superior officer.

When an ISP or telephone operator receives a request from the FSB, they are not given any legal documentation. Worse than that, in order to comply with FSB orders they must install the equipment necessary to implement SORM-3, codenamed Omega, meeting the costs themselves. Any ISP that fails to install the equipment on time is subject to heavy fines.

Once Omega has been installed, the FSB has direct access to the information, bypassing the technical staff of the ISP or the phone operator. It’s a process that works well. According to documents obtained by the secret services watchdog website, the number of intercepted emails and phone conversations has doubled in six years, to 539,864 in 2012 from 265,937 in 2007. These figures do not include wiretaps carried out abroad.

Self-censorship encouraged

When the Russian journalists Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov published an investigation in The Guardian on 6 October last year into the monitoring and wiretapping measures being prepared for the Sochi Games, the authorities did not bother to deny the extent of the system – quite the opposite. In reply to the investigation, the Russian government’s international broadcasting service Voice of Russia published an article headlined Don’t be scared of phone tapping during Sochi. It’s for your own safety, saying the measures were necessary as part of the fight against terrorism.

A month later, on 8 November, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree authorising the FSB to intercept and retain for three years all data relating to the telephone and Internet communications of the organizers, athletes and journalists attending the Sochi Games.

The Russian authorities and the FSB hope that the announcement of these draconian measures will drive journalists to exercise self-censorship. The data gathered at Sochi will allow the FSB to identify journalists who are critical of the government and their sources.

Blacklist grows longer and longer

Russia has adopted dangerous legislation governing the flow of news and information and freedom of expression online. Since 2012 it has had a veritable legal armoury allowing any site to be placed on a blacklist and blocked without a court decision.

The Duma, Russia’s parliament, passed a law in 2012 allowing the authorities to compile a blacklist of websites without a court order, ostensibly to protect children. The blacklist includes sites “containing pornography or extremist ideas, or promoting suicide or the use of drugs”.

Once a site is on the list, the hosting service must notify the owner within 24 hours. If the owner fails to remove the incriminating content, the web hosting service must close down the entire site. If the host fails to do so, it is in turn added to the blacklist and ISPs must cut off access to its platform.

Since then, the list of criteria used to block access to a site has continued to grow. In late 2013, a new law extended the grounds for blocking websites to include the publication of content regarded as extremist, such as inciting hatred or acts of terrorism, but including urging people to participate in unauthorized protests.

The creation of the blacklist and the gradual extension of the grounds for blocking sites are typical of the draconian legislation passed by the Russian parliament. There is an obvious risk of over-blocking online content when the reasons given are vague, there is a lack of clarity in decision-making and the technical procedures are unsound.

Earlier this month, the site listed 35,000 sites that had been blocked by mistake because they shared an IP address with those containing “harmful” content. YouTube, Google and Russia’s first social network site Vkontakte have all been blocked temporarily several times for “technical reasons”. The same thing happened to the country’s most popular blog platform, LiveJournal.

News and information providers are fair game

The list of bloggers and netizens who suffer harassment continues to lengthen, especially those who write on sensitive subjects that are in the public interest.

The well-known journalist and blogger Sergei Reznik, 37, has criticized the local authorities and highlighted widespread corruption in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don in his blog and in articles for the newspaper Yuzhny Federalny and Novaya Gazeta’s regional online supplement, Yuzhnom Federalnom.

Last November, a local court sentenced him to 18 months in a labour camp. At the same time, he was found guilty of insulting a magistrate in his blog, of fabricating telephone threats even though he was later brutally assaulted, and of offering 2,000 roubles to a garage mechanic to obtain a roadworthiness certificate for his car.

Suren Gazaryan, an environmental activist and popular blogger, is well known for his investigations into environmental problems and corruption linked to this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

In June last year, he and another activist each received a conditional prison sentence of three years in a trial without due process, after he reported that a dacha belonging to the governor of the Krasnodar region, Aleksandr Tkachev, had been built illegally in the middle of a protected nature reserve.

The two men were found guilty of causing serious damage to private property over minor damage to a metal fence that was carried out by other activists, despite offering to pay for repairs themselves.

In November 2012, more trumped-up charges were brought against Gazaryan and, fearing imminent arrest as a result of his previous conviction, he fled the country and received political asylum in Estonia.

Maxim Efimov is a blogger and human rights activist from the Karelia region on the Finnish border. He is the head of the Karelian branch of the non-governmental organisation Youth Human Rights Group and editor of the anti-fascist newspaper Chas Nol. He also has several blogs, such as  In April last year, an investigation was opened against him for inciting religious hatred after he published an article in December 2011 entitled “Karelia is tired of priests”.

On the night of 10 April, the FSB raided his home and seized his computer. On 12 May, a regional court ordered him to be committed to a psychiatric hospital. On 20 May, he fled Russia and was given political asylum in Estonia.