It is unclear why whistle-blowing hero Edward Snowden asked ex-KGB President Vladimir Putin ‘does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?’, but the fact that he is relying on Russian leniency not to hand him over for severe punishment in the US may just perhaps a factor.
More to the point are Putin’s rather relaxed answers in which he was happy to talk as one spy to another ‘in professional language’. While defending the secret service’s need to ‘use modern means’ against terrorists and when fighting crime, Putin insisted ‘that mass surveillance, we certainly not do it ourselves…[and]… will never allow it’. He also claimed that the Russian secret services do not have the funding and resources available to the NSA, and,
‘Thank God, our special services are strictly controlled by the state and society, and their activity is regulated by law.’
Although a great stage piece for Putin, these claims are wildly misleading. Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.Ru and one of the most prominent experts of Russia’s surveillance culture told The Washington Post that since 1994 Russia has its own version of PRISM known as SORM (System for Operative Investigative Activities), which has been greatly expanded during the 14 years of Putin’s rule.
SORM is in fact split into three services: SORM-1 collects mobile and landline telephone calls, SORM-2 collects internet traffic, and SORM-3 collects from all media (including Wi-Fi and social networks) and stores data for three years. By law, all Russian ISP‘s are required to install an FSB (successor to the KGB) monitoring device known as a ‘Punkt Upravlenia’ on their networks, which automatically collects communications without input or oversight by the ISP.
It is true in theory that such collection requires a court order, but these are issued in secret and not shown to the ISP, although a number of government agencies other that the FSB can demand access to SORM data, which they regularly use to target ‘undesirables’, such as human rights activists and political opponents. During the Sochi Olympics SORM was even used monitor athletes, coaches, journalists, spectators, and members of the Olympic Committee.
Putin’s apparent suggestion that there is legal oversight of the FSB is also spurious. The Duma (representative assembly) does have a Special Committee for Security, but this has no oversight for the secret services.
Soldatov concedes that Russia does not have ‘such technical means and as money compared to the United States,’ but argues that this is irrelevant when it comes to domestic surveillance. SORM is backed up by a raft of legal measures aimed at making its job easier, including limits on the use of encryption, the ability to shut down ‘undesirable’ domestic sites, and the ability to filter foreign sites (which it has been used to coerce Western companies into removing ‘objectionable’ postings).
Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University summed up the accuracy of Putin’s answer,
‘It gave Putin the chance to [make a] reply that dramatically misrepresents the massive interception and surveillance capacities available to the Russian state and the lack of meaningful checks and balances on them. And, given that Sochi was used to trial new technical measures allowing even deeper and more extensive electronic surveillance, I anticipate that Russia will be moving ever closer to becoming a true surveillance state.’
Although it is likely that Snowden’s question was in some way coerced, and was used by Putin for political point-scoring against the US, Soldatov hopes that it may spark a debate within Russia on the issues of surveillance.