Russia's Spying Craze
Published: October 31, 2013 (Issue # 1784)
It came as a shock to many observers when VimpelCom, one of Russia's largest telecommunications companies, publicly criticized the government's plans to legalize the interception of telephone and e-mail communications. VimpelCom sent a letter to the Communications and Press Ministry criticizing the plan as unconstitutional.
But this type of espionage is not all that new. The principles governing that system were established and first implemented back in the 1990s. Every few years since then, the requirements placed upon Internet providers and phone companies have been updated in accordance with the latest technologies and the ever-growing appetite of Russia's intelligence agencies.
For example, the new spying program requires that phone operators and Internet providers make it possible for intelligence agencies to intercept correspondences that users sent through companies such as Gmail and Yahoo, along with ICQ instant messages and even obligates the companies to store the information for 12 hours at a time until it is retrieved by the authorities. These requirements would expand the authorities' surveillance capabilities to intercept correspondences that are passed through foreign Internet providers.
The number of telephone calls and e-mail messages that the Federal Security Service has intercepted has doubled over the past six years, from 265,937 in 2007 to 539,864 in 2012. These figures were based on the number of court sanctions issued to approve the government's surveillance of private communications, according to the Supreme Court. What's more, other federal agencies have followed the example of the FSB by legalizing their own communications interception programs. These include the Federal Drug Control Service, the Interior Ministry and the Federal Penitentiary Service.
The interception system was designed to avoid any outside control. The same reasons that prompted the U.S. National Security Agency to create its PRISM system also motivated Russia to create a legal interception system it called SORM that has enabled the authorities to remotely access information from phone operators and Internet providers. For this purpose, the provider must install a SORM black box that is connected by a cable to a command center at FSB headquarters. By using this equipment, FSB agents can monitor all phone conversations, e-mail correspondence, instant messages, Internet searches and so on.
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