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.