Circling the Lion's Den

NSA Is No Match for the FSB

Andrei Soldatov

Commenting on†the surveillance scandal with the†U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, President†Vladimir Putin†was highly deceitful when he told RT television last week that if a†government's surveillance of†its citizens "is done within the†framework of†the law … then it's fine." What Putin failed to†mention is that Russian and†U.S. laws governing wiretapping differ substantially.

In†the U.S., law enforcement or intelligence agencies must first receive a†court order permitting wiretapping. They send that warrant to†telephone operators and†Internet providers, which are then required by†law to†intercept the†requested information and†forward it to†the respective government agencies. In†Russia, Federal Security Service officers are also required to†obtain a†court order to†eavesdrop, but once they have it they are not required to†present it to†anybody except their superiors in†the FSB.

While the†U.S. has checks and†balances that regulate how the†state eavesdrops on†its citizens, Russia has none.

The†FSB has control centers that are connected by†cables directly to†operators' computer servers. To†monitor particular phone conversations or Internet communications, an†FSB agent only has to†enter a†command into†the control center located in†the local FSB headquarters. That practice is in†place throughout the†country. Every regional FSB headquarters is connected by†cables to†all telephone operators and†Internet providers in†the region.

That system, known as the†Law Enforcement Support System, or SORM, is actually a†holdover from†the country's Soviet totalitarian past and†was developed by†a KGB research institute in†the mid-1980s. Recent technological advances have simply been used to†fine-tune the†system. Now, the†SORM-1 system captures telephone and†mobile phone communications, SORM-2 intercepts Internet traffic, and†SORM-3 collects information from†all forms of†communication, providing long-term storage of†all information and†data on†subscribers.

But Russia's general approach to†surveillance dates back to†the Soviet era and†has changed little since then. It has none of†the checks and†balances that are present in†the West. FSB agents wanting to†add a†new phone number to†monitor do not need to†obtain a†new court order and†send it to†the telephone operator or Internet provider. All they have to†do is enter the†required information into†the control system in†their office.

Meanwhile, the†Russian system, like its U.S. counterpart, is expanding very rapidly. According to†information obtained from†Russia's Supreme Court, the†number of†intercepted telephone conversations and†e-mail messages has doubled over a†period of†six years, from†265,937 in†2007 to†539,864 in†2012. What's more, these statistics do not include all of†the counterintelligence eavesdropping on†foreigners, the†main category of†wiretapping activity for†the NSA in†the U.S.

In†contrast to†the U.S., SORM is also used to†wiretap the†Kremlin's political opponents with full support from†the courts, which rubber-stamp requests for†warrants. This became evident on†Nov. 12, when the†Supreme Court upheld the†right of†the authorities to†eavesdrop on†the opposition. In†that case, the†court recognized the†legality of†an FSB operation to†wiretap conversations of†Yekaterinburg city lawmaker Maxim Petlin because he had participated in†a protest rally at†which the†FSB was criticized.

At†the same time, however, Russia doesn't have the†advanced technology to†intercept global telecommunications traffic to†the extent that it is done in†the U.S., but that does not mean Russia is not eavesdropping on†communications beyond its borders.

A†major advantage for†the FSB is that the†former branch offices of†the KGB that are located in†member countries of†the Commonwealth of†Independent States, or CIS, employ the†same surveillance practices as Russia does. When those countries update their wiretapping systems, they not only purchase Russian equipment but even copy Russian legislation, often word for†word.

This trend increased dramatically after the†outbreak of†the Arab Spring. Beginning in†2010, CIS members began modernizing their national systems for†wiretapping and†communications interception by†modeling them after Russia's SORM. In†March 2010, Belarussian President†Alexander Lukashenko†signed a†decree to†create a†SORM-type system in†that country. In†late 2010, Ukraine modernized the†national requirements for†its own SORM. And†the National Security State Committee of†Kyrgyzstan posted a†draft resolution for†strengthening its SORM system on†its website last August, and†that system turned out to†be practically identical to†the Russian version.

Within a†few years, the†authorities might finally create what Soviet leaders had hoped to†achieve before historical events stopped them: a†unified system for†wiretapping telecommunications and†monitoring Internet traffic spanning most of†the territory of†the former Soviet Union.


Published on June, 19, 2013 in The Moscow Times†