Focus on Domestic Government Surveillance: Russia

Natalie Sherman
Staff Writer

The System of Operative Search Measures, or SORM, was once used by the Soviet Union to monitor phone calls. Now it is being used in Russia to track geolocation and IP addresses. The program was resurrected by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1995 to surveil online activity and has grown in scope as the internet became an ever greater essential of day-to-day life.

Russia’s internet surveillance is based not on blocking information, but rather on data collection. SORM gives the FSB a backdoor to the internet and access to user’s personal information, such as phone numbers or email addresses.

The so-called “Russian Model” of internet surveillance is much more appealing to most authoritarian regimes than anything as extensive as China’s “Great Firewall.” The New York Times notes, “A lot more countries look more like Russia than China.” Resources, both financial and administrative, are scarce in many of these countries, and devoting such a large portion to internet surveillance is simply not possible.

A backdoor that allows the government to collect information on individuals rather than blocking outside information is more feasible and allows it to target individuals without sacrificing as many resources. SORM technology can be purchased for as little as $20,000, and Russian companies have sold it to many states in what Russians commonly refer to as the “near abroad”, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as states in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.

As noted in a report published by the Brookings Institute, on November 1st, 2019, Russia’s “sovereign internet” law came into effect. This law would effectively allow the government to cut off the country’s internet, commonly referred to as Runet, from the rest of the internet if necessary. Similar technology was used by Iran earlier this year to shut off internet access during widespread protests in November. Weaponizing technology in this way allows authoritarian regimes to disrupt the flow of information and combat protests.

Similarly, Russia’s video surveillance increased leading up to the 2018 World Cup. The Moscow Times reports, “During the World Cup, facial recognition systems using neural network image processing to identify, track and blacklist individual suspects were connected to security cameras in and around stadiums in the eleven host cities.”

Human Rights Watch notes that since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia has used its network of cameras, facial recognition technology, and geolocations to ensure that its citizens abide by the mandatory 14-day quarantines imposed for people reentering the country from abroad or those who may have been exposed to COVID-19. According to Meduza, medical information and geolocation data are protected by the Russian Constitution, but such protections are allowed to be restricted during times of emergency.

Last month’s poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shows how far-reaching and pervasive FSB surveillance can be for critics of the Kremlin. For years leading up to Navalny’s poisoning with the Soviet-era chemical weapon Novichok, he and his associates had been followed by FSB officers and subject to intimidation.

Even when Navalny first arrived at a hospital in the Russian city of Omsk, Navalny’s family quickly recognized FSB agents were present. Navalny was taken from Omsk to a hospital in Germany, after Russia faced international pressure to allow his transfer, and he has since begun to recover.

Ivan Zhadrov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, told The Financial Times, “We know they constantly listen to our phone conversations, we know they put up hidden cameras, we know they take the footage from security cameras everywhere we go. They interrogated my relatives, everyone I had meetings with — it’s more or less total control.”

Compromising materials collected on Navalny and his family, such as video footage and phone calls, were used in a TV documentary commissioned in 2017 to discredit Navalny as well as the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Dmitry Belousov, a former scriptwriter for Ren-TV, the station which aired the documentary, claims that the materials were provided to the station by the FSB.

The surveillance and poisoning of Alexei Navalny show how far the Kremlin is willing to go to silence whistleblowers and opposition. The situation is eerily familiar to the 2018 poisoning of the Russian ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK, as they were all poisoned by Novichok. 

The Russian model of surveillance is ideal for regimes that wish to target and threaten individuals as opposed to suppressing information. It is comparatively inexpensive and uses administrative resources efficiently. Russia has the capability to track individuals using both facial recognition technology and geolocation and has backdoors to the internet via SORM technology that allows them to access user’s personal information. Information which has been used to target and track persons of interest and activists against the Putin government.

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