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Russians Fight for Net Privacy

ABCNEWS.com, 12 jun 99
Christopher Hamilton, Special to ABCNEWS.com - 11 jun 99
Russia’s FSB, successor to the KGB, is attempting to enforce regulations allowing domestic spies full access to private e-mail and Internet traffic.

12.06.1999

Russian Web surfers, like these at Moscow's Internet Chevignon Cafe, will find the Net a less friendly place if state security officials have their way.

S U M M A R Y

Russia"s FSB, successor to the KGB, is attempting to enforce regulations allowing domestic spies full access to private e-mail and Internet traffic.

S T . P E T E R S B U R G , June 11 In Russia, the Internet and free are words not necessarily found in the same sentence.

Russian Internet users continue to struggle against a state security system mired in Soviet-era attitudes toward the free flow of information. The latest outrage: a ministerial act put forward by the Federal Security Service (FSB in its Russian acronym), the successor to the KGB. The act would boost the ability of law enforcement to monitor citizens" Internet activities.

The new act represents an addendum to an existing regulation called SORM " the Russian acronym for System for Operational-Investigative Activities. Currently awaiting approval from the Russian Ministry of Justice, SORM-2 would require Internet service providers to install at their own expense FSB-provided "black boxes" plus a hotline to the FSB. The devices would enable the FSB to monitor and record all electronic communications.

Because SORM-2 is a regulation, it requires only approval from the Ministry of Justice, not review by Parliament or President Yeltsin. Existing law already affords the state security apparatus plentiful eavesdropping possibilities once a warrant is issued. SORM-2 would expand those capabilities, making full electronic surveillance as easy as a mouse click for the FSB.

"Steps Toward Totalitarianism"

News of SORM-2 was leaked late last year on the Moscow Libertarium, a digital-freedom Web site sponsored by the Institute for Commercial Engineering in Moscow.

"SORM-2 is a step toward removing the checks and balances between public and the state," says Anatoly Levenchuk, who operates the Libertarium site. "First they will start investigations without warrants. Then they will decide who is guilty without a trial"These are steps toward totalitarianism."

"The FSB is used to collecting dossiers on citizens just in case," said Yuri Vdovin of Citizen"s Watch, a St. Petersburg-based human rights organization. "They have been spying on us for years, but now I am going to have to pay for it."

Russian ISPs have already begun to feel the chill. Bayard-Slavia Communications, a Volgograd-based ISP that has repeatedly refused to provide information to the FSB without a warrant, was disconnected from its network provider in mid-May. The state communications agency, Goskomsvyaz, cited "improper formulation" of the company"s contract with the provider, Moscow-Teleport. Company director Nail Murzhanov has assembled a team of prominent activists and lawyers in St. Petersburg and vows to take the matter to court.

Eugene Prygoff of Kuban Net, based in Krasnodar, also reports FSB pressure. "Things here in the provinces aren"t like in Moscow and Petersburg. They come and ask for full access to our clients" e-mail. Sure, we ask for a court order and an explanation, but they have power in the structures that own the ISDN line, so we have to comply."

Turning to Encryption

Hoping to prevent invasions of their privacy, many Russian Internet users are turning to encryption. According to Maksim Otstavnov, who maintains the Russian Web site for the encryption program PGP, or Pretty Good Privacy, hits increased about 10-fold after news of SORM-2 was leaked to the public last year. But the official status of cryptography in Russia remains unclear. In 1995, Yeltsin banned the use of PGP and other forms of encryption unless it is licensed and registered with FAPSI, the Russian equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency. Whether his decree legally applies to private citizens is a matter of debate.

The murky state of the law and the lack of public disclosure leaves citizens uninformed about laws that affect them. Citizen"s Watch has held numerous seminars on issues surrounding SORM and computer privacy.

"We need to educate people and get them involved," said Vdovin.

Vdovin and Citizen"s Watch are drafting proposals for the State Duma, Russia"s lower house of Parliament, to create a system of checks and balances to rein in the FSB"s domestic spying activities. Meanwhile the shadowy struggle between the security agency and Internet service providers continues. According to Anatoly Levenchuk, "The FSB is already trying to establish "volunteer" agreements similar to SORM-2 with providers. ISPs failing to comply face pressure tactics ranging from repeated visits from tax police to building inspectors threatening to shut them down."

In Russia, the state has always fought for access to its citizens" private communications, while citizens have fought back as best they could. The battle over Internet privacy could determine who"s winning this ongoing struggle.

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