Global Politics

Does Russia spy on the communications of millions of individuals?

Snowden during Putin talk_CROP.jpg

Credit: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Journalists listen to a question posed by former US spy agency NSA contractor Edward Snowden, at a media center during Russian President Vladimir Putin's live broadcast nationwide phone-in.

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden popped up on Russian TV screens this week.

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The former US intelligence contractor phoned in a question during President Vladimir Putin's nationwide TV call-in show.

"Does Russia intercept, store or analyse in any way the communications of millions of individuals?" Snowden asked.

Snowden was granted asylum by Russia last year. His question during Putin's show, and the president's answer, came as something of surprise to Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov.

"Well of course I was surprised because here in Moscow its absolutely impossible to get in touch with Snowden and he never granted any interviews to Russian journalists and we were told that he's heavily protected by security people, so that's why it was a big surprise."

Soldatov is editor of the Russian website Agentura, which focuses on security and surveillance issues.  

Putin took a while to answer Snowden's question, but essentially he said that Russia does not spy on its people on a mass scale, and that even if it wanted to it didn't have the capability.

“You have to get court permission to stalk a particular person,” Putin said. “Certainly, we do not take liberty of such a vast scale, an uncontrolled scale… Thank God, our special services are strictly controlled by the state and society and their activity is regulated by law."

Putin's answer isn't exactly true according to Soldatov who’s been investigating Russia's surveillance culture for 15 years. "Russian secret services have the technical capabilities to spy on Russian citizens,"he says.

Soldatov adds that Russia has its own advanced sophisticated system of telecommunication interception known as SORM.

Over the course of Putin's tenure as Russian president, he says SORM operations and capabilities have grown. Soldatov says SORM was designed from the beginning to help Russian secret services to get direct and remote access to Russian telecommunications companies and Internet service providers.

Secondly, Soldatov objects to Putin's claim that the FSB, the successor to the Soviet KGB, is under the control of the state and the society.

“It was a very surprising comment because everybody knows in Russia that we don't have parliamentary control or any kind of oversight of security services,"  Soldatov says. He adds, "the Russian legislative body, the Duma, does not have a special committee for security to carry out actual oversight of secret services."

In short Soldatov says,  "All communications in Russia are absolutely transparent for the secret services."

Soldatov says he hopes Snowden's provocative question and Putin's evasive answer may now trigger a wider public discussion of security and surveillance issues in Russia. 

"Before this question it was impossible to launch any kind of debate about surveillance," he says. "We (Agentura) exposed the story about totalitarian surveillance at the Olympics in Sochi and to be frank it was mostly debated abroad but not in Russia. So I hope maybe now because we have Putin's response and obviously we can comment on this and expose why he's wrong, so I think it might spark some debate, and I think that's very good thing."

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