Less than three months after granting asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Russia is preparing to implement the kind of electronic surveillance that Snowden uncovered in the U.S.
The Russian communications ministry and KGB successor Federal Counterintelligence Service, or FSB, have drafted a regulation requiring Internet providers and mobile operators to install equipment allowing spy services to record and store for no less than 12 hours any data passing through their networks. According to a report in the business daily Kommersant, the ministry's draft directive also orders providers to store identifying information about participants in all data exchanges. This would include e-mail addresses, Internet addresses, web-chat IDs and the physical locations of people using Skype or Google Hangouts. The equipment is to be installed by July 1, 2014.
The new directive appears to violate Article 24 of the Russian constitution, which says personal information cannot be collected and stored without a citizen's permission. The country's existing electronic surveillance system, known as SORM, allows intelligence services to monitor Internet traffic but does not require providers to record information. The FSB and other security services need a court order to access the data they have the capacity to screen. They are not formally allowed to store anything.
"Constitution? Right to correspondence privacy? Never heard of them," entrepreneur Artur Welf commented on Facebook. Even some Russian legislators, notorious for their hardline stance on most issues, were cautiously outraged. "If indeed communications providers will be obliged to act in that way, I believe this will be a direct violation of the Russian constitution," Sergei Mironov, head of the Fair Russia faction in the Russian parliament, told the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti.
Neither Mironov nor the general public can know exactly what the directive says, because it hasn't been made available. The Communications Ministry fulfilled its legal requirement to publish a draft by posting a brief description on a government website. No details were provided, and not a single comment had been submitted a week into the 15-day period allowed for public debate. The bureaucrat listed on the site as the person responsible for the debate said he did not have the latest version of the document.
Kommersant found out about the directive from a letter sent to the government by Vimpelcom, one of Russia's three biggest mobile operators. The letter pointed out the potential constitutional violations and lamented the cost to providers, who have traditionally borne the cost of SORM equipment. Vimpelcom estimated the annual cost of recording and storing all traffic at $100 million.
The new requirements would bring SORM up to the level of the comparable U.S. and U.K. systems, PRISM and Tempora, whose existence Snowden revealed to the Guardian in May. These systems, according to documents provided by Snowden, are capable of storing large amounts of data. It would appear that after Snowden's revelations, the Russian intelligence services decided SORM needed an upgrade.
Actually, the FSB may have been storing personal information already. Telecommunications analyst Eldar Murtazin is certain of that. "The information volume is growing exponentially, so FSB servers cannot handle the data stream," Murtazin wrote in his blog. "They want to keep doing what they have been doing, only spreading the workload to private business."
In an official comment to the state-owned news agency ITAR-TASS, the Communications Ministry indirectly confirmed Murtazin's speculation, saying that nothing of principle would change.
To allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the new directive is only natural. "One has to remember that these measures are being taken for society's security from internal and external threats," said Denis Davydov, head of the Safe Internet League, an organization that helps the government shut down sites that are deemed to contain illegal content such as child porn, drug propaganda and extremist content. "The important thing is that the measures should actually work and not turn into a fiction."
To Snowden, who, according to Putin, is in Russia only as a human rights activist, these developments in his host country are not a matter of concern. He leads a quiet life in a country whose level of Internet freedom dropped from 30th to 41st in the world in the past year, according to Freedom House.
In recent weeks, the former NSA contractor has met with his father, who came from the U.S. to see him, and with a group of former employees of U.S. security services calling themselves Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, who awarded him a prize for ethics and integrity. Videos from the latter meeting were published on WikiLeaks, but the public was not told where the event took place.
If Snowden is still in Russia in July 2014, his electronic communications, too, will be recorded and stored by his cellular operator and Internet provider -- which, unlike the U.S. companies tapped by the NSA, will not even try to hide what they’re doing. Perhaps he prefers it in the open.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View.)