The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin told Edward Snowden that Russia doesn’t use mass surveillance on its citizens. Here’s a reality check.

One of the more surreal moments of today's installment in Vladimir Putin's series of reliably surreal call-ins with the Russian nation was when NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden appeared, and asked the former KGB spy about surveillance.

Snowden, currently in hiding in Russia, asked Putin whether the Russian state used the tactics of mass surveillance he had helped to uncover in the United States. Putin, apparently happy to talk spy craft with another former member of the intelligence community, had a firm answer: No, we don't do that.

“You have to get court permission to stalk a particular person,” he said. “Certainly, we do not take liberty of such a vast scale, an uncontrolled scale. [...] Thank God, our special services are strictly controlled by the state and society and their activity is regulated by law."

Putin seemed confident in his answer, but let's take a step back here: Is this actually true? Not exactly, says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.Ru and one of the most prominent experts of Russia's surveillance culture.

In fact, Soldatov says, Russia even has its own version of PRISM, the clandestine mass electronic surveillance program that Snowden uncovered. It's called SORM, and has been around since 1995. During Putin's 14 years in Russian leadership, the scope of SORM has been expanded numerous times.

Soldatov argues that there were three key points made by Putin, each of which was a half-truth or a lie. First, Soldatov says, Putin argued that the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet era's KGB, needs to get a warrant from a court before surveillance can begin. This is true in theory, Soldatov admits, but in practice the warrants are not required to be shown: Telecoms agencies and Internet providers do not have the necessary security clearance to view the warrants, in any case.

Secondly, Putin seemed to suggest that the Russian legislature, the Duma, has oversight over the FSB. This is not true, Soldatov says, arguing that while the State Duma does have a Special Committee for Security, it has no actual oversight for secret services.

Finally, Putin argued that Russia doesn't have the "hardware and money the United States has." Soldatov says this is "not entirely correct." The biggest limitation on FSB's spying is that Russian communication systems – for example, the social network VKontakte – are rarely used abroad, unlike U.S. systems (for example, Google and Facebook). This gives the U.S. a clear advantage in international surveillance, but it is mostly irrelevant for the discussion of domestic mass surveillance, Soldatov argues.

"The state, and in particular the security state, is the law [in Russia]," Matthew Rojansky, an expert on Russia with the Wilson Institute, says. "If the security state wants or needs something, they get it."

Snowden's question and Putin's answer seemed clearly designed to needle the U.S. about its problems with the NSA, and it came right after a question that questioned whether Western countries could really be sovereign after Snowden's revelations ("It's hard to talk to people who whisper in their homes, fearing that Americans listening" Putin said). Snowden's appearance at an event that some would label propaganda has left some to criticize his motives.

"Snowden's question was deeply disingenuous and I can only assume this is part of his singing for his supper, or at least his sanctuary," Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, wrote in an e-mail. "It gave Putin the chance to give an equally disingenuous reply that dramatically misrepresents the massive interception and surveillance capacities available to the Russian state and the lack of meaningful checks and balances on them. And, given that Sochi was used to trial new technical measures allowing even deeper and more extensive electronic surveillance, I anticipate that Russia will be moving ever closer to becoming a true surveillance state."

Still, Soldatov argues that Snowden's appearance will do good. Within Russia there's been little debate about domestic spying until very recently, he argues. Soldatov and his colleagues at Agentura.Ru published a report about Russian state surveillance at Sochi earlier this year. "Nobody cared in Russia," Soldatov said, adding that the response from the state was: "Yes, you will be spied on, but it's all for your safety." To Russians, many of whom were used to domestic surveillance under the KGB and who had legitimate fears about terrorism, that trade-off seemed to be okay.

"It's a good thing [that Snowden asked that question]," Soldatov told The Post. "So far Snowden and [Glenn] Greenwald have refused to talk about surveillance in Russia. Instead, they say that they chose this country not because of its domestic policies, but because it wouldn't extradite Snowden." Soldatov's hope is that now a similar debate to the one sparked by Snowden in the U.S. might take place in Russia.

For more on Soldatov's investigations, check out this long article published in Wired that explains SORM.