Russian Spies, They've Got Mail
Regulations Allow Security Services to Tap Into Systems of Internet Providers
By Sharon LaFraniere
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 7, 2002; Page A14
MOSCOW -- Nail Murzakhanov, an Internet provider in Volgograd, knew he might lose his business license four years ago when he told the Federal Security Service, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, that he would not give it access to the e-mail traffic of his 1,500 subscribers.
When the Communications Ministry suspended his license for failure to cooperate with the intelligence agency, known as the FSB, Murzakhanov filed suit.
Surprisingly, in August 2000, he got his license back. "In the end, I was left in peace," he said in a phone call from an office filled with brightly colored computer games.
The standoff was surprising not so much because Murzakhanov won, but because it occurred at all. Typically, Internet providers in Russia say they do all they can to satisfy the state security services, even if it means turning over the password of every client.
That is one telling barometer of the security services' continuing power in Russia's 11-year-old democracy. In theory, Russians are entitled to as much privacy in their communications as Americans. Both the Russian constitution and a 1995 law prohibit law enforcement agencies from monitoring phone calls, pager messages, radio transmissions, e-mails or Internet traffic without a court order.
But in practice, critics say, court orders are little more than legal niceties in Russia. An obscure set of technical regulations issued in the late 1990s permits total access without ever approaching a judge.
The regulations are known as SORM, the Russian acronym for System for Operational-Investigative Activities. They require Internet providers to give their local FSB office whatever hardware, software and fiber-optic lines may be needed to tap into the provider's system and all its users.
While U.S. law is based on the premise that law enforcement agencies must be held in check, Russian civil rights advocates say the premise of SORM is that Russian law enforcement can be trusted to keep itself in check.
"They have all the conditions to abuse their power," said Yuri Vdovin, who heads Citizens' Watch, a St. Petersburg human rights organization funded by the Ford Foundation. "The system is on purpose constructed in such a way that there is no way anyone can control them. A Russian citizen is not protected at all."
Internet providers don't like the system, especially since they promise clients in their contracts that their e-mail will be kept confidential. But a decade after perestroika, Russia is still a country where people are not inclined to fight city hall, much less what was once the secret police.
Eugene Prygoff is the former marketing director of Kuban.net., an Internet provider in the southwestern Russia city of Krasnodar. He said the vast majority of providers are simply not willing to risk their licenses to test the principle of privacy. "They see no sense in putting up resistance. So they work out a deal with the FSB," he said.
And compared with their counterparts in the West, civil rights organizations are still scarce and often too weak to challenge the state. Citizens' Watch, for instance, is working with a group of Russian lawyers to prepare a legal complaint against SORM. At the same time, the group's 12 employees are working on issues of freedom of the press, racial discrimination, juvenile crime, military reform and state secrecy.
Not every provider ends up installing a direct line to the local FSB office, according to Mikhail Yakushev, head of the legal department at Global One, an international firm andone of Moscow's biggest Internet providers. Each one works out its own confidential agreement with the security service, he said. He stressed that his comments reflected the views of an Internet providers association, where he heads the legal working group, not Global One.
"In practice SORM is not as abusive as it could be, because the FSB doesn't have enough qualified staff or special equipment to be as active as they could," he said.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company