Circling the Lion's Den

A near doubling in Russian wiretaps over five years – and that’s only the legal stuff!

In a previous article, we asked who was bugging the Russian opposition. Here we develop this theme, looking at how a combination of recent legislation and new technology has allowed Russia’s many security agencies to expand their activities still further.

In May an audio recording of a conversation between Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and the Swedish Ambassador to Russia was posted on the internet  . The conversation had taken place a year earlier in the Holiday Inn on Lesnaya Street in Moscow, during a conference marking the 90th anniversary of Andrey Sakharov’s birth. As Sergey Lukashevsky, the director of the Sakharov Centre, explained to us, Carl Bildt was a speaker at the conference, which Aleksey Navalny attended. And according to Navalny’s press officer, they chatted over breakfast at the hotel. The listening device had evidently been installed on the table - a bugging technique popular since KGB times.

Not just audio, but also video, recordings of opposition politicians pop up on the internet regularly, and no one has ever been brought to account for them, although the opposition is convinced it can only be the work of the intelligence services. Given recent mass protest activity and the subsequent rise in repressive measures against the public, the question of whether the security forces have stepped up their surveillance of the Russian population is a very topical one. These organisations refuse, however, to talk about this side of their activities, citing the Law on State Secrets.

‘Figures published by the Supreme Court Justice Department show that over the last five years the number of legal telephone and email intercepts alone has almost doubled.’

Figures published by the Supreme Court Justice Department nevertheless show that over the last five years the number of legal telephone intercepts alone has almost doubled. In 2011, for example, the police received authorisation from the courts for 466,152 intercepts and recordings of phone calls, as well as intercepts of emails. The number for five years earlier was 265, 937. And this was despite the fact that  according to Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, crime figures for the previous six years had fallen, and the number of prosecutions had dropped accordingly.

In 2008 the Department charged with fighting organised crime and terrorism was disbanded, and a a new department was formed to ‘counter extremism’, whose aim was in fact to suppress political opposition to the government. Taking these developments together, it would be interesting to find out under what pretext the security services requested, and were given, permission for such a large number of intercepts.    

Wider powers   

It is no secret that after 9/11 many western governments invested heavily in surveillance systems, ostensibly to help them fight terrorism. In Russia, however, the growth in electronic surveillance came after 2007, at a time when anti-terrorist activity was decreasing. The last major attack by Chechen militants’(the raid on Nalchik  ) was in October 2005, in each subsequent year the security forces were able to boast of a fall in acts of terrorism, and in 2009 the Kremlin announced an end to its operations in Chechnya. So the war on terror cannot explain the growth in phone and email hacking.

Since the mid 2000s, the security forces have not only been subject to less financial monitoring; they have also expanded the range of situations in which they can resort to bugging and surveillance. Law No.404 –FZ, passed in December  2010, regulates the work of the agencies carrying out pre-trial investigations, and updates previous legislation by including in the clause on ‘Grounds for the instigation of operative investigative initiatives’ the words ‘and material verifying evidence statements about the crime’. Expert criminologists whom we have consulted about this phrase have confirmed that it could become a basis in law for increased phone hacking.

‘According to the Criminal Procedural Code, each evidence statement must be checked and positively confirmed before a charge is made’, says Olga Shvarts,  a consultant at the World Bank who previously worked as an advisor to the Russian Parliament’s legislative committee and took part in the drafting of the revised Criminal Procedural Code. ‘This is a simple enough business, but it gives the police the right to conduct an investigation, including the recording of phone conversations, for example, without any intention of going ahead with a charge – they can then report that the evidence was not confirmed, but they will have got the information they were looking for.’

At present there are eight agencies in Russia that can conduct operational investigations: the Interior Ministry (MVD), the FSB, the Federal Protective Service, the Foreign Intelligence Service, Customs and Excise, The Federal Antidrug Agency, the Federal Prisons Service (FSIN) and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU). In the last few years several of them have expanded their powers of surveillance. We wrote in February about regional FSIN directorates buying sophisticated SORM (System for Operative Investigative Activities) technology systems that can intercept both telephone and internet traffic. It was not then clear, however, why an agency responsible for prisons and labour colonies should be laying cables to telephone exchanges and thereby gaining access to the phone conversations of an entire city.

We have now found out how FSIN managed to gain authorisation to tap phones beyond the limits of its penal institutions. In 2011 new legislation designed to cut Russia’s prison population introduced new forms of punishment, such as community service, for less serious crime. In December 2011 existing legislation was altered to allow local FSIN departments to carry out operational-investigative activity when ‘enforcing punishments where convicted criminals are not kept in isolation from society’.

The growth in legal phone and email hacking is also linked to the development of new technology. Vladimir Ovchinsky, deputy chair of the ‘Union of Criminal Investigators and Criminologists’ and former head of Interpol’s Russian bureau, thinks it reflects an improvement in the hardware and software available to law enforcement agencies, and says the published figures do not give the whole picture, since they do not include Intelligence and Counterintelligence activity which does not show up in any statistics.

The increased surveillance powers enjoyed by the security services, coupled with generous funding by the Finance Ministry; the expansion of the list of situations where hacking is authorised and the impact of new technology – all this has led to a doubling of phone and email hacking over the last five years. So does this mean that the government is intensifying police surveillance of law abiding Russian citizens?

Has the Genie been let out of the bottle?

MP Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer who set up his own security firm in the 90s, but who has recently been in trouble for his opposition activity, believes that in allowing so many security agencies to get involved in interception, we have let the genie out of the bottle: ‘In the KGB all technical operations used to come under one department, the 12th’, he says, ‘but now we have a whole bunch of security agencies, they all have their own surveillance departments, and it’s difficult to tell who’s watching whom and who’s bugging whom. I have raised this question in parliament, but ‘United Russia’ isn’t interested in following it up. The security services use it against the opposition – they record and listen to phone calls and they tail me continuously. Why? And besides, there’s a black market in electronic surveillance. They use their investigative powers to fight the opposition or make money. There should be public and parliamentary monitoring of the work of the security agencies. MPs themselves are the first victims of their illegal activities. In all other countries, starting with the USA, there are active parliamentary committees that do this.’

Gudkov was actually very surprised that there were statistics available on the Supreme Court Justice Department’s website. ‘Where did you find these figures?’ he asked us. ‘I have asked the Supreme Court about this and was told that there were no such statistics, as each intelligance agency keeps its own separate record of technical operations.’

‘There’s an exponential growth of electronic monitoring everywhere. In the USA, the UK, Germany and France court procedures have been simplified, restrictions on tapping certain categories of people lifted – it’s a global tendency.’  Ex Russian Interpol chief Vladimir Ovchinsky 

Valdimir Vasiliev, a retired police general, is like Gudkov a member of the Parliamentary security committee, but totally disagrees with him. He doesn’t think Russia is turning into a police state. ‘There is no country that doesn’t have a police force’, he tells us, ‘and a police force, acting within the law, is our last bastion of order in an imperfect society.’ He believes that a number of factors could explain the recorded increase in authorised phone and email hacking, ‘as the recent police reform presupposed its use for the exposure of criminal corruption, measures to combat organised crime and drug trafficking, and also searches for missing persons’. 

Ex Interpol chief Vladimir Ovchinsky also points out that clandestine police operations are on the increase all over the world. ‘And that’s a good thing’, he says. ‘There’s an exponential growth of electronic monitoring everywhere. In the USA, the UK, Germany and France court procedures have been simplified, restrictions on tapping certain categories of people lifted – it’s a global tendency.’    

Meanwhile Russia’s security agencies have moved on to the next step – the gathering of all information received as a result of surveillance and electronic interception in integrated databases.

On 10th May Moscow’s Central Internal Affairs Directorate posted an invitation to tender for the development of ‘a software system for automatic analysis of data from technical investigation operations’. For 10,750,000 roubles (about $335,000), the ‘Tracker’ will allow staff at the Centre for Operational Investigative Information to instantly access data from different information systems about people on whom they have records or whoPm they are processing, as well as compiling a file on them which can then be sent to different integrated databases.

Published on OpenDemocracy 1.06.2012