Does Russia spy on the communications of millions of individuals?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: Back to modern day Russia now. NSA leaker Edward Snowden popped up on Russian TV screens this week. The former US intelligence contracted phoned in a question during President Vladimir Putin's nationwide TV call-in show.

Edward Snowden: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?

Schachter: Snowden was granted asylum by Russia last year. His question during Putin's show and the President's answer are generating a lot of buzz. I asked Andrei Soldatov for his reaction. He's editor of the Russian website Agentura, which focuses on security and surveillance issues.

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.

Schachter: What do you make of Putin's answer? He said basically Russia does not spy on its people on a mass scale and that even if it wanted to, it doesn't have the capability. Was he telling the truth?

Soldatov: Not exactly because actually Russian secret services have technical capabilities to spy on Russian citizens. We have a very sophisticated and advanced system of telecommunication interception known as SORM, the system of algoration and research measures. This system is very advanced. We actually investigated the Russian efforts to intercept and store and to conduct mass surveillance on Russian citizens. It's actually a developing story because many Russian secret services are now trying to buy special programs to, for example, monitor social networks. It's quite a mucky(?) picture, to be frank.

Schachter: Do you think that Snowden's question or Putin's answer yesterday will spark some debate about this topic in Russia?

Soldatov: I do hope so because last year we exposed a story about a totalitarian surveillance at the Olympic games in Sochi and, to be frank, it was mostly debated abroad, not in Russia. So I hope maybe now, because we have Putin's response, obviously we can comment on this and we can expose why he was wrong and I think it's a very good thing because it helps us to launch a debate about these things.

Schachter: Should we assume that the conversation that we're having now is being listened to?

Soldatov: It might be possible because you know that Microsoft is the owner of Skype and actually has a very good connection with the Russian secret services since the 1990's, mostly because the Russian secret services helped Microsoft to fight piracy. They're always open and have told all things, so we should presume that Skype is not safe. To be frank, I try to speak as open as I can just because I hate self-censorship. I think the problem is that in a country like Russia, when you don't have established rules, what is a law and what is not a law for journalists? It's a very smart tactic for the Kremlin because you might inspire self-censorship. Everyone's trying to guess what the law is.

Schachter: Have you had problems, in the 15 years that you've been doing this?

Soldatov: Plenty of them, actually. I was summoned for interrogation, I was almost accused of disclosing state secrets. When I wanted to publish my book about Russian secret services, immediately the printing house, not even the publisher, but the printing house, was raided by the security agents. So this is a big problem. Nobody knows the rules and these rules might be changing very rapidly. Just a year ago, it was almost impossible to accuse journalists of state treason. Now it's possible. Now we have these new amendments where journalists or publicists or anyone who expresses critical things about things like say, Crimea, might be accused of harming national interests. Again, it's so unclear and unpredictable who might actually be prosecuted. So the situation is very unpredictable, I must say.

Schachter: Andrei Soldatov is editor for the Russian website Agentura.RU. Thank you for the work you do and for speaking with us.

Soldatov: Thank you.