New legislation has been passed in Russia this week that gives Putin’s government snooping powers very similar to those that the NSA and GCHQ already have, and almost identical to a new law passed in Australia. The law requires that Russian firms keep records of all metadata relating to Russian citizens. As is usual with this kind of law, the data that must be stored includes IP addresses, email communication, data usage statistics, and world wide web browsing locations.
The law is seen by many as an attempt on Putin’s part to gain a measure of control over the Internet – which the Kremlin feels is too firmly controlled by the West – and in particular America.
Not long ago, Putin made comments in which he accused the Internet of being a CIA-run project. Despite those comments, however, this new legislation can just as easily be seen as Russia coming into line with standard international surveillance practices. Sadly for Russians, this means that they too are now under the kind of blanket surveillance that pro-privacy activists so often complain about in the West.
The new law puts pressure on American firms like Google, Facebook and Twitter, many of which do not even have offices in Moscow. To comply with the law, international companies will need to move all the data that they hold on Russian users to servers within the nation itself. Also informing the Russian watchdog Roskomnadzor about where those servers are.
According to Irina Levova, strategic project director at the Internet Research Institute in Moscow, the law, like many Russian laws, has some gray areas and could even end up being largely unimplemented,
‘There are a lot of nuances and indirect contradictions in the law. For a start, it’s unclear what exactly ‘personal data’ means. Theoretically it means something that can identify an individual, so a Facebook account may not be enough; it doesn’t have to be your real name there.’
Levova says that for now the primary target is Russian speaking websites that may be handling their data internationally. By forcing domestic sites to handle their data on servers within Russia, it is hoped that perhaps that data can be wrestled out of the hands of the Americans. This would, at least, give the Kremlin control over its nation’s data.
Speaking on Kommersant-FM radio, a spokesman for the Russian internet watchdog Roskomnadzor concurred with Lenova’s opinion. ‘Transnational internet giants are not the main object of attention for this law. It’s more about the banking sphere, air travel, hotels, mobile operators, e-commerce. This is what is important,’ said Vadim Ampelonsky.
Despite these comments, it seems unlikely that Putin will not slowly begin to pressure international firms into complying. The arrival of the law coming so soon after comments that clearly express his government’s desire to gain a foothold of control over the internet.
Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist, and co-author of ‘The Red Web’ (a book about the internet in Russia) has also given his opinion on the law,
‘The idea is to have a pretext to force these big global companies to talk to the Kremlin. It could also force them to open offices here, which would make them more amenable to pressure from authorities.’
Considering that out of the main international web based companies only Google has offices in Russia, it seems like a reasonable line of thought. Facebook, in fact, has already held meetings with the Russian internet watchdog – a sign perhaps that the law is already having the desired effect.
Soldatov also feels that an important part of the law may be Putin’s struggle against the HTTP protocol, which uses encryption that Russian security agencies have so far failed to break,
‘When you reach Facebook it’s an unencrypted connection, but when you do anything on Facebook or send a message there, it goes through two or three servers, and that makes everything completely inaccessible. They need access before the encryption.’
Despite the soft talk, there is little doubt that since the Snowden revelations the Russians are feeling at the whim of the Americans and their substantial control of information on the internet. Last year, politician Irina Yarovaya, said that the internet ‘breaks down borders and undermines the idea of sovereignty’ and can ‘encroach on internal sovereign interests and destroy national security’.
The paranoia doesn’t stop there either. Last month the chief of the Russian security council, Nikolai Patrushev, said that government officials should abstain from using messengers like Whatsapp or Google Hangouts as they are likely to get intercepted. Not a crazy mindset at all considering the scope of the NSA’s powers. Although arguably the Russians should go back to passing pencil written notes -or at least use peer to peer messaging services – if they truly want to protect themselves from surveillance by the sophisticated American security agencies.