Russia’s surveillance state is giving us a false sense of security

The Russian state’s mass expansion of surveillance online and offline is not making citizens any safer. 

Damir Gainutdinov
25 August 2017

CC BY 2.0 Sascha Pohflepp / Flickr. Some rights reserved.“We don't want to ban encryption, but our inability to see what terrorists are plotting undermines our security.” These words don’t belong to a member of the Russian parliament or Vladimir Putin’s adviser on the internet, but the UK Home Secretary. It’s clear that Amber Rudd’s recent statement concerns not only digital encryption, but the whole system of state surveillance — interception, listening, video surveillance and various systems for identifying individuals, including biometrics. For some reason, law enforcement agencies around the world believe that if you take everyone’s fingerprints, force them to register their DNA, gain access to their correspondence and make them report to the police when they visit their family in the next town over, crime will disappear.

The idea that “an honest person has nothing to hide” is often repeated by those for whom the concept of privacy only impedes their ability to track their fellow citizens. But you also hear it from people who clearly do have something to hide, despite the fact that they are not doing anything to violate the law. In 2016, the Agora International Human Rights Group produced its first report, revealing several hundred identified cases of politically motivated surveillance of Russian activists, journalists and NGOs — when police officers photographed and fingerprinted people detained during protests, for example. Human rights defenders moving around the country regularly encounter increased attention from law enforcement agencies — they are detained, searched and questioned about why they’re travelling. State and pro-state media broadcast the results of wiretaps and video surveillance of opposition politicians, which have been clearly passed to them by the security services, as well as compromising stories they have fabricated themselves. Internet services periodically warn their users that “state-sponsored hackers” are trying to get access to their accounts.

Human rights defenders moving around the country regularly encounter increased attention from law enforcement agencies — they are detained, searched and questioned about why they’re travelling

Meanwhile, you don’t have to be a civil activist, support Alexey Navalny or donate money to the Golos election monitors in order to wind up in the police’s databases. You don’t even have to commit a crime in order for your phone to be tapped. Working on this year’s report on surveillance, we decided to describe how the Russian state’s systems for collecting and processing information on its citizens work — most of them violating human rights legislation.

Are you planning a holiday in Turkey and need a foreign passport? You need to be fingerprinted. Are you taking your kids to visit their relatives in a neighbouring region? The Ministry of Transport will know not just your passport number, but also the bus route, your seat number, the make of bus and its license number, as well as the name of the cashier who sold you the ticket. You’re driving from Dagestan to Krasnodar? Prepare your passport for inspection at the republic border — and an explanation of why you’re travelling. You use the VKontakte social network? Be aware that your correspondence will be stored and handed over to a police investigator or an employee of the Center for Combatting Extremism. You’ve spent time in prison? Welcome to administrative probation under the eyes of the police. If you casually repost a YouTube clip declared extremist by some random court, you could face extremism charges and find yourself on the financial monitoring agency’s list. You can send an appeal, and then maybe you’ll have permission to spend up to 10,000 roubles (£131) a month on your family. That’s if you aren’t fired after your name appears on the agency’s website.

Perhaps you were “unlucky” with your ethnic background, religion or family. For example, in Crimea, the security services regularly round up Crimean Tatars and scare detainees into giving DNA samples and fingerprints. There are reports from Dagestan that relatives of people suspected of being members of illegal armed groups are also forced into taking DNA tests, and more than 20,000 citizens are registered on the police’s “watch list” for being adherents of non-traditional Islam. After the Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned, up to 150,000 believers in Russia wound up under surveillance by the law enforcement agencies — a useful number for the “anti-extremism” services, who operate according to quotas.

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21 February, 2017: Russian security services search Crimean Tatar homes in Kamenka, Simferopol, arresting 10 people. Source: Grani.Russian citizens are obliged to inform the authorities if they open accounts in foreign banks, move funds between these accounts, have foreign citizenship or residence qualifications in other countries and, in many cases, if they have participated in foreign organisations, or founded foreign organisations without setting up a legal entity. Russia’s Ministry of Finance recently proposed obliging citizens to inform the authorities of all changes to their civil status abroad — marriage, divorce, childbirth and so on.

The state is actively collecting a range of biometric data about its citizens. According to the most approximate estimates, the number of people who have had their fingerprints taken in Russia is over 25m, including people over the age of 12 with biometric passports, people serving in the military, law enforcement and the navy, people who have been imprisoned and a whole range of foreign citizens.

Over the last decade, Russian courts have issued 5.4m permits for phone tapping, granting 98.35% of requests from the police and security services

There is a mass of evidence of people detained for administrative offences having their fingerprints taken, despite the fact that this procedure is officially restricted to people who have actually been arrested on administrative grounds. State media outlets help the police to illegally collect information on citizens, by leading them into believing that “Russian law requires fingerprints to be taken from all persons detained by the police”. Last year, Russia’s Civic Chamber debated a bill to extend the practice of compulsory DNA registration to anyone arrested for an administrative offence or suspected of a criminal offence.

Over the last decade, Russian courts have issued 5.4m permits for phone tapping, granting 98.35% of requests from the police and security services. And given the absolute opacity of the system for examining requests and implementing court decisions in this area, there is no doubt that the real number of phones being bugged could be several times higher. This has been indirectly confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights, which has recognised the absence in Russian legislation of appropriate and sufficient guarantees against official arbitrary action and the risk of rights abuses, “which is particularly high in the system where, thanks to technical advances, the security services and police have direct access to all mobile phone conversations”.

Hundreds of billions of roubles have been allocated to the development of video surveillance systems that are currently being installed in Russia’s large cities and which include facial identification functions. In Moscow alone, around 130,000 CCTV cameras are already in operation, with access to their footage available in real time.

Under the pretext of preparations for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the government is also installing facial recognition and number plate recording systems at sporting venues, as well as gathering information on members of fan clubs and publishing lists of people banned from attending sports events. The managements of hotels, campsites, hostels and other types of visitor accommodation are required to inform the police of visitor registrations within 24 hours. This is why your passport is usually scanned on your arrival. And security service “curators” have orders to report separately on such suspicious arrivals as NGO employees and foreign journalists.


Irina Yarovaya, pictured here in November 2013, has been involved in promoting laws restricting freedom of assembly, conscience, and civil society, as well as the 2016 telecommunications law. CC BY 2.0 Official photographer of the Federation Council of Russia / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.In 2016, the Russian government adopted a clear policy of “war on internet anonymity”. The first real step in that direction was the “Yarovaya package”, named after its author, MP Irina Yarovaya. This was a series of amendments to legislation, including the Criminal Code and the Federal Law “On Information”. Ostensibly designed to combat terrorism, these amendments require all communications service providers and internet services to store records of all user communications for six months and metadata for three years. Services using encryption also had to give their “keys” to the FSB, allowing traffic to be decoded.

The second step were the laws “On Messengers” and “On Anonymisers”, which require internet messengers to identify users and the owners of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and other means of protecting data transfers to cooperate with the government in restricting access to data banned in Russia. Since you can’t do this without tracking user activity, the next step will probably be a requirement to inform the security services of this. In this situation, the only effective guarantee of user safety is the reputation of your IT service, which will imply a refusal to reveal any data about your users to the authorities. Then, if you are suspected of cooperating with authoritarian governments, you have to answer for it, as did the Swiss company Threema, for example.

The Russian government is presenting its citizens with a choice: either accept total arbitrary surveillance as a given, or try to find ways of protecting your privacy. Rather than travelling on public transport, for example, use Ridesharing or Uber; instead of paying by debit or credit card, use electronic transfers, cryptocurrency (such as Bitcoin) or cash. Communicate by Signal rather than phone; safe messenging services rather than texts; Facebook rather than VKontakte and use social networks to find accommodation, rather than traditional hotels where you’ll be asked for your passport. Encrypt your messages and computer hard disks and use special make-up to protect you from facial recognition systems, VPNs and other types of technology — their variety is increasing by the day. The use of these measures is of course viewed by the government as suspicious behaviour, and their accessibility is under constant threat.

Since 2012, covering your face at a demo or rally to avoid identification is in itself an offence against the regulations governing the organisation of, and participation in public events and can lead to a hefty fine

A few years after Alexey Navalny managed to collect millions of roubles in donations through Yandex.Money in a couple of days, the authorities responded with a law limiting anonymous internet payments and began questioning users whom they succeeded in identifying. Officials said it was the Financial Action Task Force which wanted to ban anonymous payments, but who were they trying to fool?

Since 2012, covering your face at a demo or rally to avoid identification is in itself an offence against the regulations governing the organisation of, and participation in public events and can lead toa hefty fine. Arguing for the need to remand journalist Alexander Sokolov, accused of attempting to initiate a referendum, in custody, his investigating officer cited the fact that he always recommended his colleagues to work only with safe email clients.

The Ministry of Education and Science is also developing recommendations on how to uncover criminal subcultures in schools, and regards the use by students of technology that supports encryption as a suspicious sign.

Despite the gradual change in Russian finance chiefs’ attitude to cryptocurrencies, public prosecutors still threaten business owners trying to use Bitcoin transactions with prosecution. The country’s financial watchdog also recommends banks presented with unusual (i.e. requiring heightened security) deals to take into account the “extra concern of the client in matters of confidentiality regarding the operation in question”.

There are usually perfectly honourable (for which read: lawful) aims behind all these measures: child protection, the war on terrorism and money laundering, safety provisions for people coming to the World Cup, the control of illegal immigration and so on. The Russian government, however, usually forgets one further important criterion that governs the intervention into citizens’ rights and freedoms: necessity and proportionality.

In the absence of any control over the actions of numerous officials who have an ever growing amount of strictly personal (and often extremely intimate) information on citizens at their disposal, misuse of this information is inevitable. The inability of the state to guarantee the confidentiality of the data collected is as much of a threat (and perhaps even a greater one) to national security and civil rights as terrorist groups in Russia. Especially as no one has yet been able to come up with convincing proof of the effectiveness of total surveillance in preventing and investigating crimes. The CCTV cameras on the Kremlin walls were “switched off” at the moment when opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in February 2015.


CC BY 2.0 cea+ / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Indeed, the special review group examining the US National Security Agency (NSA)’s surveillance activity in the light of Edward Snowden’s revelations, recommended that the mass bugging of US citizens’ phones be abandoned, citing not only the breach of constitutional rights but the fact that it had made “only a modest contribution to the nation’s security”. Professor Geoffrey Stone, a member of the review group, said that they had found no case where bugging could have averted a serious terrorist act.

In Oliver Stone’s “Putin Interviews”, the Russian president, in response to a question on whether his country’s security services carried out surveillance of Russian citizens, answered that they didn’t, as Russia, unlike the USA, lacked the technical means of doing so. It seems we are sacrificing our privacy for the sake of a false security, and can’t even bank on a minimal result like the Americans.

To close, I feel the following anecdote speaks for itself. When my sister’s bicycle was stolen from her apartment block, the thief’s face, clothing and walk were clearly visible on the footage recorded by the CCTV camera in the hallway. The police, however, didn’t even try to find it.

Read Agora International's full report on surveillance in Russia here.

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