Putin's 'Clapper' Moment: What He Said Vs. What Russian Intelligence Actually Does

from the did-anyone-expect-Putin-to-actually-confirm-this? dept

Snowden's puzzling single-question Q&A with Russian president Vladimir Putin on the topic of domestic surveillance prompted many to believe this was an indication that he was, at the very least, under control of Russian intelligence, if not actually acting in concert with it. Putin took the apparent softball and lined it right down the middle, responding with a series of statements and denials that made Russia appear to be the antithesis of the US government: tightly controlled intelligence built on respect for its citizens' privacy.

As Snowden later clarified, he was pulling a Wyden -- crafting a question about the mass collection and storage of communications that would either result in transparency or an easily-disproven denial. Putin delivered the latter.

"Mr Snowden you are a former agent, a spy, I used to work for a intelligence service, we are going to talk the same language."

He said Russia did not have a comparable programme, stating: "Our agents are controlled by law. You have to get court permission to put an individual under surveillance. We don't have mass permission, and our law makes it impossible for that kind of mass permission to exist."
Putin's response was laughable. After all, his nation's intelligence services originally put the "surveillance" in Surveillance State. In the USSR, along with the Eastern Bloc, citizens were very closely watched and routinely punished for not toeing the Party line.

Not much has changed, even if Russia is nominally a "free" country. The Russian Federal Service for Telecoms Supervision (Roskomnazdor) is continually expanding its internet censorship efforts and Russian intelligence services have made public announcements about their surveillance plans, like the collection of all foreign communications during the Sochi Olympics.

While Roskomnazdor mans the front door, Russian intelligence lets itself in the back, according to information gathered by Privacy International.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the KGB’s regional branches became the security services of the newly independent states. But they didn’t stray far from the Kremlin’s lead. They modeled their governing laws after Moscow’s, and used similar technology, too. Namely, SORM — Russia’s nationwide system of automated and remote legal interception on all kinds of communications.

SORM’s tactical and technical foundations were developed by a KGB research institute in the mid-1980s. Initially SORM was installed on analogue telephone lines. As new technologies developed, SORM did, as well.

Today SORM-1 intercepts telephone traffic, including mobile networks, while SORM-2 is responsible for intercepting internet traffic, including VoIP. SORM-3 gathers information from all communication media, and offers long-term storage (three years), providing access to all data on subscribers. In addition, SORM enables the use of mobile control points, a laptop that can be plugged directly into communication hubs and immediately intercept and record the operator’s traffic.
SORM also proved essential to spy on social networks based in Russia. “We can use SORM to take stuff off their servers behind their backs,” an FSB official told us. According to figures published by Russia’s Supreme Court, over the last five years the number of legal telephone intercepts alone has almost doubled, from 265,937 intercepts and recordings of phone calls and e-mails to 466,152 in 2011.
Going back to Putin's statement, he claims that "court permission" is needed to put someone under surveillance. From the above paragraph, that statement would appear to be true. But further digging into SORM reveals that court orders and warrants are little more than surveillance blank checks.
In Russia, an FSB operative is also required to get an eavesdropping warrant, but he is not obliged to show it to anyone. Telecom providers have no right to demand that the FSB show them the warrant. The providers are required to pay for the SORM equipment and its installation, but they are denied access to the surveillance boxes.
Thus, the FSB does not need to contact the ISP’s staff; instead the security service calls on the special controller at the FSB HQ that is connected by a protected cable directly to the SORM device installed on the ISP network. This system is copied all over the country: In every Russian town there are protected underground cables, which connect the HQ of the local FSB department with all ISPs and telecom providers in the region.
If the FSB needs to add targets to its existing "tap," it doesn't need to notify the court. The agent in place simply updates the SORM control device. So, one controller and one court order can easily trap the communications of an unlimited number of citizens, all without anyone but SORM knowing who's being surveilled. This technology has made its way to the former Eastern Bloc (which hasn't made those countries happy) and has been deployed to intercept communications from political opponents. The more things change, the more Russian intelligence appears to be happy to return to its KGB heyday.

Beyond the fact that Putin's answer was simply (and knowingly) false, there's also the fact that his denials echo those delivered by NSA and GCHQ officials. Whenever a new leak surfaces, the routine denial is dispensed. Here's GCHQ's canned response:
[A]ll of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight…
Putin basically says the same thing while denying information that's already been made public. According to him, it's all legal and subject to oversight, something that clearly isn't the case. Certainly Snowden expected a canned answer, and he got one -- one in which Putin lied about his intelligence agency's capabilities and tactics. At one point, we in the US (and the UK) could have mocked such a clearly false denial, but after the events of the past nine months, we no longer have that luxury.

The problem isn't that we don't expect Russia's government to have made a sea change in its relationship with its citizens. The problem is that we didn't expect ours had. Putting this on Snowden's head because a softball question was handled with a PR-savvy answer doesn't make him complicit with the FSB's surveillance activities. But our politicians and government agencies have made us unwillingly complicit with our own. "Legality" and "oversight" are mere buzzwords in the hands of surveillance state defenders. The words don't mean what they used to… if they ever meant anything at all.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Apr 2014 @ 3:45pm


    Still.... A better Surveillance story than NSA Leaks

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    TSO, 21 Apr 2014 @ 4:07pm

    You know what's the difference between Russia and US, and why US is hypocritical while Russia is not?

    Russia never pretended it does not monitor the communications. The creation of SORM was publicly disclosed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Apr 2014 @ 5:15pm

    Moral of the story. Encrypted communications is one of the only ways to have a private conversation with someone, who's standing more than an arms length away from you. If one of you has a cellphone on your person with a bugged microphone, then arms length conversations might not even hold true.

    We already have secure software, in the form of FOSS. The only obstacle left is manufacturing secure FOSS hardware, for the software to run on top of.

    Once this happens, most of our spy state problems will melt away. Expect the vast majority of states to do everything in their power to prevent FOSS hardware from being purchasable by the public.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 21 Apr 2014 @ 5:20pm


      On the contrary, they wouldn't have any problems at all with FOSS hardware, all they'd need to do would be to 'add' a few bits and pieces, and suddenly all that careful 'security' goes right out the window.

      After all, only terrorists would try and hide their activities from the government, so obviously anyone looking into encrypting their communications deserves that extra little bit of attention.

      (And another iffy sarc mark. I don't mean or believe the above, though they certainly do)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Apr 2014 @ 5:30pm

    quantum encryption and block chain p2p verification will eventually make all of their shenanigans meaningless. i just hope it hurries up

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 21 Apr 2014 @ 7:15pm


      quantum encryption and block chain p2p verification will eventually make all of their shenanigans meaningless.

      Don't forget that they'll have quantum computers to break encryption before we'll have them to make it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bleurgh, 21 Apr 2014 @ 6:27pm

    Who was it that originally put the surveillance in the surveillance state?

    Assuming we're limiting ourselves to states in the modern sense, and can thus overlook the intrigues of monarchs (when l'etat c'est moi, what objection can there be to the cabinet noire?), the answer to the question is beyond argumentation.

    It was not the USSR, but the USA, and it was done to safeguard the imperial conquest of the Philippines in the wake of its 'liberation' from the Spanish.


    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Apr 2014 @ 7:44pm

    Russia does not have Military Industrial Complex to feed, thus, unlikely will ever have Bluffdale. Just look at their equipment in Crimea.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Apr 2014 @ 11:24pm


      They do, however, manufacture the most versatile of the rifles in the AK-47, which has needed only marginal improvements since its creation.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Robert, 21 Apr 2014 @ 10:43pm

    Which is Worse

    So the real question is which is worse, shonky laws that allow excessive invasion of privacy or corruptly ignoring laws claiming special privileged blatantly contrary to the constitution.
    At least you can change laws to ensure they better serve the public but when they are blatantly breaking laws, well, you are screwed no matter what you do short of violent revolution.
    Have a good long hard think about that and the compare the corporate puppet Obama to the authoritarian Putin. At least they voted for Putin, no one voted for Obama's masters.
    No matter how good you laws are, when the government and it's agencies start blatantly and corruptly ignoring them, well, it not bloody point at all to point to another country and saying their laws are worse, seriously, WTF?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2014 @ 1:18am

      Re: Which is Worse

      Moral relativism and whataboutism? Putin is the undisputed world champion in that category, though.

      Why try to measure who is worse when information are not even close to sufficient to give a picture of that?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Christenson, 22 Apr 2014 @ 7:16am

    Spying real cause of fall of soviet union...

    It's worth repeating:

    The KGB (and the Cheka from which it arose), and not communism, was the real cause of the fall of the Soviet Union...the petty corruption it encourages DISCOURAGES innovators, because there is always an incumbent displaced by an innovation, or prepared to steal the fruits.

    Who stands out, gets taken down by petty security agents. It doesn't matter what country they are in, it's a huge drag on the economy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2014 @ 7:59am

    i cant believe you guys still pull the communist card

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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