Andrei Soldatov is an expert on the rise of communications and social media technology in Russia, where there is currently a pitched battle between the digital dictators and the new online revolutionaries.
It sounds like something from a James Bond movie, but I really am meeting an outspoken Russian security services critic for afternoon tea in a quintessentially English oak-panelled drawing room in St James’s Square. To be precise, Andrei Soldatov and I are meeting at Chatham House, the building where the eponymous ‘Rule’ was framed back in June 1927. It was written to encourage debate while protecting the privacy of the participants. In other words, under the Chatham House Rule you are free to say whatever you like because, although what you say can be reported, the speaker may not be named.
Soldatov and I are here to talk about the shrouded world of electronic eavesdropping in Russia, but we spend a few moments enjoying the idea that we are sitting in the inner sanctum of free speech, while talking about how his government tries to control the way people communicate. As the PR blurb for Soldatov’s new book - ‘The Red Web’ - says, the Internet in Russia is either the most efficient totalitarian tool, or the device by which totalitarianism will be overthrown. The book is an exposé demonstrating how easily a mode of free global exchange can be transformed into a weapon of geopolitical warfare.
American privacy activist and mass surveillance celebrity Edward Snowden describes Soldatov as “perhaps the single most prominent critic of Russia’s surveillance apparatus”. High praise indeed from a man that Soldatov openly criticises. Yet Snowden’s point holds, because the Russian writer is outspoken and fearless in his verbal attacks on his government. In one sense, he can get away with more than most because his father Alexei Soldatov, as former Deputy Communication Minister, wields sufficient influence to give his son a degree of protection. Even so, Soldatov junior, as the cofounder of the website Agentura.ru, is under constant surveillance and is routinely hauled in before the authorities for interrogation. His website has been described by the New York Times as something that "came in from the cold to unveil Russian secrets."
For those of us in the West, concepts and principles such as freedom of information, exchange of data and the right to communicate without being monitored are taken as axiomatic. However, it’s not like that in Russia, although it might be one day soon, because the Internet is changing the game. Soldatov says: “for decades now, even centuries, Russia has been all about hierarchy. During the Russian Empire there was strict rule and strong government. Then there was the Soviet Union and now we have Vladimir Putin. It’s always been about hierarchy. It’s always about who is in charge, who is the boss.”
This is the vertical structure that Soldatov argues is under pressure from “the horizontal structure of the Internet. In the 1990s we saw that there was an increase in freedom of expression and communication for the Russian people. But slowly, as we entered the 2000s, we lost that again, and it is continuing to this very moment.”
No place for debate
The Russian government controls the population by means of controlling the flow of information. That’s not a quotation from George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (although it could be). It’s actually Soldatov’s one-line appraisal of what life is like in the digital communication age in his homeland. For Soldatov, who studies the history of Russian intelligence from the most basic surveillance to relatively sophisticated electronic snooping, this is nothing short of a disaster. “The government’s idea is not just to prevent you from saying something critical. That’s only half of it. The government also believes its business should be left in their hands. The government doesn’t accept the idea of public debate.”
A Russian politician once said (probably apocryphally): “Parliament is not the place for debate.” Meanwhile, when the man on the street wants to tell you something in strict confidence, the expression of choice is, “this isn’t a phone conversation, you know,” the implication that your line is bugged.
When the Internet arrived in Russia it hit the government like a nuclear bomb, and the authorities’ first reaction was to try to stop people playing with information exchange platforms. To do this, they introduced a technology called SORM, a “system of data interception that embraces all kinds of communication, from email chats to mobile networks. Everything. It was first designed in the late 1980s as a small, but significant research project under the control of the KGB.” It was first implemented in 1992 as a telephone landline-monitoring device and has been constantly updated ever since. “It’s essentially spy technology, where SORM is a back door that provides unrestricted access to all servers of Russian telecommunication companies and Internet service providers all over the country. Every operator in Russia that wants to operate a telecommunications business needs a licence. One of the requirements of the licence is for operators to buy and install SORM boxes.”
The SORM box looks remarkably similar to the old VHS machines that were once household video playback devices. It slots into the telecommunication rack and connects directly to the local headquarters of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), which is the direct successor of the KGB. “From this headquarters there will be cables running to every ISP in the region.” This model, says Soldatov, is different from how lawful surveillance works in the West because “there are two lines of communication between the law enforcement agency and the telecommunications company. The first line is used to send a warrant, which starts the interception, and the second line sends back the results. In Russia there is only one line and this is not used to send the warrant, but to gain access. That’s because in Russia the interception is conducted by the FSB and not by the telecommunications company.”
One of the troublemakers
Having your emails intercepted in Russia, according to Soldatov "could kill you," and yet it is not quite as widespread as the popular media would have us believe. “Historically, you need to remember that we have inherited these systems from our Soviet past. During Soviet times, under the KGB there was only a small amount of surveillance. At the height of the movement, there were no more than 2,000 dissidents. That’s a small number of people to spy on. But at the same time there was also the potential to intercept any telephone call, which is why we have the famous saying about conversations not being phone calls. The Russian system was used, on the one hand, to target a few troublemakers, while, on the other, to send the message to everyone else that you might be spied on, so please be careful. This message was very direct and visible, and it is still the case today.”
On the technology front, Russia “does not spy on everyone because of lack of will. The security services simply aren’t geared up to analyse large amounts of data. Russian software companies are unable to produce sophisticated programs to analyse databases.” Soldatov says that you can produce the culture of snooping on everybody, but at the end of the day, he says it’s like trying to eat an elephant: you just can’t do it. “If you look at the software being used to monitor social media, in one ministry alone there will be thousands of different programs being used. And that is a sign of weakness, because it means that the security services cannot analyse all of the data in one place. This is their problem.”
Soldatov says that the inability to produce databases is just the start of the problem for the FSB. The next problem is related to the https secure communications protocol, which “they can’t decipher. This is why the authorities want to have the regional headquarters of big American companies such as Google and Facebook physically on Russian soil. That way they will fall under Russian legislation and their servers will then be open to the Russian secret services. This would help them get hold of data before it is encrypted.” Soldatov goes on to explain that were he and I wishing (hypothetically speaking, of course) to plan a programme of sedition against the government, logically speaking, the best way for us to communicate would be from one Gmail account to another. Until Russia manages to persuade Gmail to locate their servers to Russia, Soldatov and I can plan our revolution undisturbed.
Soldatov talks of the group of people referred to by the FSB as ‘troublemakers’ with a certain note of pride. Hardly surprising given that he is one of their number, along with his colleague and co-founder of Agentura.ru, Irina Borogan. “We first came under pressure from the FSB in 2002. If you have such a long experience of pressure like this, you develop your own ideas about how to withstand it. I have found that if I am approached by the secret services, no matter what their pretext, the best thing to do is to go public with the Russian media. This is something that needs to be reported. The secret service has a two-step strategy. The first is to make a quiet approach to you and then, if you stay quiet, they will move to the next step. Once you have gone past the first stage, it’s very hard to get back. This was a mistake made by many dissidents in the past. By going public you send the statement that you are crazy and impossible to talk to. That has helped so far.”
The reason that Soldatov finds himself in trouble is that the authorities are suspicious of the information they perceive him to have access to: information that will challenge the hierarchy. Put more simply, they just don’t like him because he represents the embodiment of trans-boundary communication on digital platforms that simply bypass the disapproval of the establishment. For anyone thinking that this is no more than a mild inconvenience, Soldatov is quick to bring in the harsh reality. In 2006, the anti-Putin journalist Anna Politkovskaya on the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who held views strongly opposed to the Chechen War, was murdered in the lift in her block of flats. Five men eventually went to prison and yet it has never emerged who commissioned the execution. “This was meant as a message to all journalists in Moscow that you might be next. But it is a complicated situation.” By this, Soldatov means that it’s not just a case of the Kremlin at the top putting pressure on everyone underneath, while those under subjugation unite to respond to the pressure. “It’s not like that unfortunately.”
On the upside, from Soldatov’s point of view, the technology that is put into the hands of the man on the street is outpacing the secret services’ ability to control the exchange of information. Yet so far we’ve not even mentioned what the content of this information is. “At first, journalists in Russia were very sceptical about social media. We all thought that it wasn’t about real information. To us, it was just a platform to share criticisms with our friends about what we see on TV. For many years it was like that and I was very sceptical about the benefit of the blogging community and citizen journalism.” Then something happened. During the 2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine (which Soldatov calls a ‘civil war’) “Russia denied military involvement. But Russian soldiers then started posting stuff, which made it immediately clear that there were Russian soldiers posted and fighting in the Ukraine. This is information that was critical. It wasn’t exposed by journalists or even activists, but by the soldiers themselves. The content wasn’t really important. What was important is that we got the truth and we got the truth thanks to social networks. So you can see why the authorities are going crazy about this.”
After the interview, Soldatov and I take a stroll in London’s St James’s Square, where we take a few photos. With my digital voice recorder turned off, our conversation becomes less formal. I ask him what it’s really like to live under constant surveillance, and he replies that you get used to it. Does he ever feel that his life is in danger? “Sure. But I figure that if they were going to kill me, they would have done it by now. But it can be a bit frightening.” My last question is perhaps the most obvious: why doesn’t he leave Moscow and live somewhere else. “I can’t,” he says, looking remarkably relaxed for a marked man. “It’s my home.” *
The Red Web, by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan is published by PublicAffairs, £18.99.