Let’s talk about Russia. Because I think there’s a real cultural difference in how we in the West understand surveillance and what’s actually happening with Russian efforts so we have a hard time believing the depth of what’s going on.
A Different Kind of Culture
My parents are diplomats. They were posted to Russia in the early 2010s. Before they left they deleted all social media and told my sister and I that the Russians would be watching us. My mum does property management stuff and my dad does tech and communications stuff.
It sounds fancy, but basically my dad is the guy that you call when your printer isn’t working, and he does things like make sure firewalls are up and people are trained on new software. Mum figures out who’s gonna live where and gets them their furniture. Not high ranking stuff.
One day mum looked up and saw a new smoke detector in the bedroom of their apartment in Moscow. Since she’s the property person, she would’ve known about a new smoke detector being installed in anyone’s unit. She would’ve organized it. This one was different from the others.
It appeared magically. She had never organized this new smoke detector. There was no reason for it to be there. Because it was installed by Russian surveillance. It wasn’t a smoke detector. Except at this point they’re so used to it she’s like “ugh, spies. Whatever.”
One of her juniors came home early to her apartment one day to find four dudes sitting around her kitchen table playing cards. They wouldn’t talk when she asked who they were. They packed up and left and one of them shrugged at her on the way out.
Another woman who worked with her got upset about her clothes in her dresser always being messed up when she knew she folded them. One day she said outloud “if you guys are gonna spy on me can’t you at least tidy up or something?” Next day when she came home her dishes were done.
Putin and Russian Internet
On the internet in 1998-1999 Russian citizens were generally very democratic and varied. In 2000 suddenly 60-80% of comments reflected totalitarian views. This is attributed to “web brigades” formed by the Russian State Security Service.
Oh, you need historical context for this to really sink in. Putin was first named Prime Minister in August 1999, he was unpopular and not well known. A bunch of apartments were bombed and it was blamed on the Chechens. Putin used this to position himself as a strong leader.
Yeltsin (Russian President at the time) announces his resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999. Putin is acting President up until the election in March. Putin ran almost no campaign and received 1/3 of all the media coverage, though there were 12 candidates for president. He won.
Putin is President from 2000-2008. Then he goes back to being Prime Minister until 2012, when he goes back to being President. Before all this he was a foreign intelligence officer until 1991 when he entered politics. He became Director of the Federal Security Service in 1998.
Federal Security Service (FSB) is responsible for internal security of the Russian state, counterintelligence, terrorism, etc. All law enforcement and intelligence agencies work under the FSB if necessary.
So back to those web brigades in 2000. Organized and overseen by Russian State Security, also known as the FSB. Also known as the successor to the KGB. Also known as the agency that Putin just reformed before becoming Prime Minister and then acting President 4 months later.
In 2012 a Russian hacktivist group publishes a bunch of emails. These emails belong to a pro-Kremlin group, including a number of government officials. Journalists discover that the pro-Kremlin group has been paying people to post comments, content, hijack blog ratings, etc.
In 2013 Freedom House reports that 22 of 60 countries use paid pro-government commentators to manipulate online discussions. Russia is at the forefront of this and has been for several years.
Also in 2013 independent Russian journalists investigate the Internet Research Agency, which employs at least 400 people at this time. The IRA hires young people to write pro-Kremlin stuff and smear US politics and culture.
Through 2014-2015, journalists investigate troll armies as the Ukraine conflict escalates. One account found a twitter network of over 20,000 fake twitter accounts to spam negative comments about Ukraine.
In 2014 Russia expands its System of Operational-Investigatory Measures (SORM) laws to include social media activity. All telecommunications companies already have to track, record and store telephone, email and web browsing activity. This adds social media.
Also in 2014 Russia passes the “Bloggers law”. This requires Bloggers with over 3,000 daily readers to register and they cannot be anonymous online.
All orgs that provide platforms (like search engines, social networks, forums) must maintain computer records on Russian soil of everything posted in the past 6 months. Yes that means: Facebook, Skype, Google and Twitter.
Also in 2014 public internet can no longer be anonymous. Anyone operating a public wi-fi network must identify users by their passport and store this information for 6 months.
Fast forward to 2016 the Yarovaya Law is signed. Internet Service Providers must also track and store data according to the bloggers law and disclose this data and “all information necessary” to authorities. On request. Without a warrant or court order.
In 2017 VPNs are banned in Russia.
In 2018 online messenger services that allow unidentified users are banned in Russia.
Also in 2018 messenger, email and social networks that allow encrypted data must allow the FSB to read encrypted messages without a court order.
Here’s a nice simplified table to show Russian interference in countries that aren’t just the US (Source).
Other things we know Russian web brigades have worked on include:
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Syria, Obama, Black Lives Matter, and fortune telling!
Russia is getting into your Netflix queue.
Russia is on your pages, in your groups, in your comments. In 2016 and 2017 nearly 30 million people actually SHARED Russian propaganda. That’s the population of Canada. (Okay, there are 37 million of us, but close).
Russia and China are sitting with their fingers on the trigger to disrupt gas and electricity in the United States, right now. They can literally shut off the power.
Russian hackers, not to be confused with trolls, are 8 times faster than their closest adversary.
We tend to think of digital surveillance in the West from a capitalist perspective. “Oh google just wants to know what kind of shoes I like so it can show me ads for shoes”.
That’s not what this is about. That’s not the ideology this kind of surveillance is built on.
I realize that it seems impossible to talk about this stuff without sounding like a tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist. But I suggest we all just take a deep breath and put that fear aside because this is just the surface stuff that we KNOW about.