Russian Internet Content Monitoring System To Go Live In December

from the don't-give-them-ideas dept

Back in April of this year, the Russian government put out a tender:

Last week, Roskomnadzor, Russian Federal Service for Telecoms Supervision, announced a public tender for developing Internet monitoring system. According to the tender, the budget for such system is 15 million rubles (about $530,000) and the job applications should be submitted by April 15, 2011. The system needs to be developed by August 15, 2011 and the testing period should end on December 15, 2011.

The stated purpose of the monitoring system was quite specific:

The major target of the monitoring, at least according to the Russian officials, is not traditional media websites or blogs, but comments at the online media outlets (it is important to note that the monitoring system is intended to be used for the content of the sites officially registered as online mass media).

Here’s what it would be searching for:

Michail Vorobiev, an assistant to the head of Roskomnadzor, told [ru] Russian information agency RIA Novosti that the system’s purpose was to discover content recognized by the Russian law as illegal. Such system will be based on two elements: a storage that would contain illegal materials (some sort of “thesaurus of illegal keywords”) and the search system that will scan through the online space and compare the online text with the illegal content in the storage.

The description of the tender is a long and openly published document [ru], so what exactly the system should look for is not a secret. The number and the nature of goals that the search robot should achieve are surprising. It goes ways beyond incitement of national hatred or appeals to violence. In includes not only terrorism, appeals to actions that threaten constitutional order, materials that disclose classified security information, propaganda of drugs and pornography, but also false information about federal and regional officials, as well as content that threatens the freedom and secrecy of choice during elections. Another interesting goal is to discover content with hidden embedded components that seek to influence subconsciousness. If it?s not enough, the program would monitor not only textual, but also visual content (photos and videos).

It’s hard to see how a system costing just half-a-million dollars could achieve all that. And as Russian commentators have pointed out, allowing just a few months for the development and testing is equally suspicious:

For instance, Maksim Salomatin from Park.ru says [ru] that the fact that participants of the tender should finish the work on the system in impossible 3 months means that, probably, Roskomnadzor has in mind some particular organization that has already worked on this program.

In other words, perhaps the whole tendering process was a formality, and things had already been moving forward on this front in the background for some time. Support for that theory comes from the fact that despite the “impossible 3 months” of development, the system will indeed be rolled out next month:

Roskomnadzor, Russian telecommunications control body, will launch content monitoring system in December 2011, Kommersant.ru reports [ru]. The system ordered in March, 2011 (see GV analysis here) is now in pre-release condition. Its documented abilities allow the monitoring of up to 5 mln keywords published at the websites registered as online mass media outlets. It will also monitor user comments. The experts fear that the scale of monitoring will extend to non-registered blogs and sites.

As that points out, the danger is that once such a system is up and running, it will be progressively extended to include first “unofficial” media sites like blogs, and then, eventually, everything online. That might also explain why the tender quotes such a ridiculously small figure: the final system would be pretty expensive, but revealing that fact in the original tender would give away the true scope.

The question then becomes: what will the authorities do with all that information? Since 2010, Roskomnadzor has been able to require online mass media to remove illegal comments, so it will presumably do the same when content is flagged up by the new system. But the very breadth of the online search is troubling, including as it does things like “false information about federal and regional officials”, something that could clearly be used against whistle-blowers.

Moreover, the danger here is not just for Russian citizens. Once again we are seeing a government striving to keep a much closer watch on key parts of the Internet ? in this case, mass media sites. Assuming it succeeds — or at least claims to have succeeded — that is likely to encourage other countries to do the same.

Although it would be nice to think that only “repressive” governments would even think of doing such a thing, recent proposals by politicians in the US and Europe regarding blocking sites and spying on users indicate how naïve that would be.

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Comments on “Russian Internet Content Monitoring System To Go Live In December”

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26 Comments
AJ (profile) says:

So a super corrupt government is taking more power from the people and giving it to the politicians? Damn… Didn’t see that coming…

“Russia is on the 154th place out of 178 in the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International. According to some expert estimates, the market for corruption in the country exceeded US$240 billion in 2006.[1]”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corruption_in_Russia

ethorad (profile) says:

Repressive Governments

Although it would be nice to think that only “repressive” governments would even think of doing such a thing, recent proposals by politicians in the US and Europe regarding blocking sites and spying on users indicate how na?ve that would be.

Well, almost by definition it is repressive governments who seek to repress their people, including through state censorship online. To my mind the naivity comes in thinking that the US and EU aren’t being repressive.

A lot of the time the US/EU governments seem like hyperactive children in glass houses with a pile of stones …

Beta (profile) says:

a swindle, inside a pork barrel, wrapped in dyslexia

“Such system will be based on two elements: a storage that would contain illegal materials (some sort of “thesaurus of illegal keywords”) and the search system that will scan through the online space and compare the online text with the illegal content in the storage.”

As described, this is pretty trivial. But the list of requirements (in the summary– I can’t read the original) is beyond ludicrous.

So either A) the list of requirements was made deliberately impossible, to prevent any serious competition with the already-chosen favorite, or B) this whole thing was dreamt up by tech-illiterate politicians who have been watching too much bad science fiction, and some contractor is playing along. Either way, somebody will get rich at the expense of the Russian taxpayer (not big news).

They’ll have a powerful monitoring system someday, but I doubt that this will contribute much to it.

Janet says:

Russia has lots of company. Canada, the US, and many European countries already have (or are now enacting) laws that permit or require ISPs and telcos to do precisely the same thing. France’s president urged ISPs to use deep packet inspection to root out suspect online activity, and France’s “HADOPI” law has made ISPs the agents of the state, issuing 650,000 cease & desist orders against alleged online offenders in the last 18 months on behalf of the entertainment industry.

Canada’s impending Copyright Modernization Act and other so-called crime fighting and “lawful access” legislation will turn ISPs and telcos into agents of the state. Bills before Parliament mandate what technology the carriers must have in place to monitor and report to authorities on all users’ online activity. Law enforcement will be able to obtain personal information about subscribers upon request — no warrant or judicial oversight necessary. The police love it, claiming they need these powers to be able to fight child pornography; but nobody in law enforcement or government has yet given any rational argument as to why existing laws are inadequate, and merely rely on rhetoric and hyperbole. Under the incoming regime, every individual, regardless of guilt or innocence, is suspected and their online activity will be available for the authorities to prove guilt — without the individual’s knowledge that they’re under suspicion or investigation.

The fact that many Privacy Commissioners, academics, lawyers, professional organizations and civil society representatives have articulated how wrong and contrary to the law these measures are — and that many are contrary to national constitutions — seems to be irrelevant to legislators who seem to be doing their very best to protect the revenue streams of a few large industries. After all, they claim, it’s a matter of national security (which is why so many of these laws and measures such as the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement were negotiated in secret).

Under existing Canadian, US, and international legislation, all information collected by governments can — or must — be shared internationally, without notice to the affected individual. There is no escape.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Correction there is no escape for companies and jobs, the population will just need to pirate hard since money will be more scarce in the future without so many jobs.

The government sold everybody out with the promises that high paying jobs would appear, those didn’t materialize and now they want to limit how the public can make a living giving power to a few to stop everybody else from making a living, that will go well I’m sure.

Steve in Austin says:

Sounds leaky to me. Are they going to intercept everyone’s packets to get into password-protected forums? Or demand access from the site owners? Will they try to MITM SSL/TLS? Monitor foreign sites for posts by Russians?

Finding certain words or phrases is doable – even particular images. But an automated way of discerning whether a text includes “incitement of national hatred or appeals to violence”, or “propaganda of drugs” etcetera? The magic software will even be able to decide whether “information about federal and regional officials” is true or false? I don’t think so.

Probably the real outcome will be a “chilling effect” where writers will restrain anything the state might not like, for fear of transgressing vague laws. It will breed a situation involving darknets and fake terrorist witch-hunts – much the way the US is heading now.

hmm (profile) says:

>>Although it would be nice to think that only “repressive” governments would even think of doing such a thing, recent proposals by politicians in the US and Europe regarding blocking sites and spying on users indicate how na?ve that would be.

Sadly, the UK and the US ARE repressive governments, they just hide it (like Russia) under a thin veil of democracy.

No matter WHO you vote for, they were bought and paid for a long time before the election date was even set.

That includes the US president and David ‘no really this ?200 million in my personal bank accounts appeared when I threw a coin into a wishing well’ Cameron…

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