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Russia: Secret Police Lowering Iron Curtain On Internet

Washington, 20 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian Internet expert says Russia's secret police are poised to implement a regulation that will permit them to monitor all electronic mail and Internet communications in the country without having to show a warrant.

Anatoly Levenchuk, the webmaster of a special site devoted to educating the public about the new regulation, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Moscow that he is exposing the regulation, code-named SORM-2, as an attempt by the secret police to return to totalitarian-style tactics.

Levenchuk says SORM-2 -- which stands for "systems for ensuring investigative activity" -- is an enhancement of SORM-1, a regulation already in place in Russia. According to Levenchuk, SORM-1, permits surveillance of specific electronic mail or Internet communication, but only after officials petition the courts for a warrant.

Levenchuk says SORM-2 will permit the FSB -- the successor to the KGB -- to bypass the need for a warrant and thus be able to monitor, at will, the electronic mail and Internet correspondence of anyone using a Russian Internet service provider.

Levenchuk says the SORM-2 regulation requires all Russian Internet and network providers to install a so-called 'black box,' or special surveillance device, in their main computers and devote a high-speed line directly to each local FSB department.

Levenchuk adds that the FSB will then monitor the information "as needed and silently," without the Internet providers even knowing what material the FSB is reviewing.

Says Levenchuk: "There should be witnesses or some oversight of SORM-2. For example, there should be an electronic log of all FSB activity which is accessible to other people so they can see what the FSB is doing. Unfortunately there is no discussion of any oversight. The FSB wants their surveillance to be silent, without witnesses and without warrants. And I am afraid of that."

What is even more alarming, says Levenchuk, is that SORM-2 will be a regulation, not legislation. Therefore, it will not face review or discussion in the Duma or by Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Levenchuk explains: "This regulation will have status of a ministerial act, and needs only to be approved by the Minister of Justice. Moreover, the regulation will originate in Goskomsviaz (State Committee of Telecommunications), not even in the FSB. The act, however, is sufficient enough to force this regulation on all Internet providers. Because in order for the providers to get a license, they must submit forms to Goskomsviaz that have been signed by FSB and show they meet all the requirements necessary."

Levenchuk says FSB officials notified several of the major Internet providers of the forthcoming regulation by summoning them to a meeting and asking for their input.

Says Levenchuk: "Several Internet providers go to this room where five or six FSB agents are waiting for them. The providers are completely silent when presented with SORM-2. I mean, this is a normal situation for us in Russia when a dictator asks for advice. After all, any dictator will listen only to advice he wants to hear. So, the providers made no comment and, in fact, even agreed to the new proposal. I'm not criticizing them for doing this. Their business depends on FSB support. If FSB doesn't like their behavior, they simply write a note to Goskomsviaz and their license is pulled or suspended."

Levenchuk says the FSB justified SORM-2 by saying it is necessary in order to fight organized crime, electronic fraud, and tax evasion.

The argument is absurd, says Levenchuk, because the mafia, and those wealthy enough to engage in tax evasion and the sort, will use special programs to encrypt their messages or simply dial long distance to a neighboring country and use a non-Russian Internet provider.

Adding insult to injury, says Levenchuk, is that the FSB is requiring Russian Internet providers to foot the bill for SORM-2. He says it will cost the service providers about $1,000 per month for a devoted line to the FSB, and a one-time fee of about $5,000 for computer software to run the black box.

Other unknown costs include maintenance and upgrades to the software, which Levenchuk estimates may be required every six months. He adds that there will also be a bureaucratic burden, although the extent of which is still unknown since the FSB hasn't said exactly how the provider will be involved in the investigative process.

Levenchuk says this cost will probably be passed on to the user. He estimates that after SORM-2 is implemented, it will raise the cost of using the Internet in Russia by about 10 percent and likely put many of the smaller Internet providers out of business.

Levenchuk says he has heard rumors that SORM-2 will be implemented in September.

Even worse, Levenchuk fears it "cannot be stopped now."

He adds: "I think it will be enacted. I do not know what to do to stop it. People here in Russia do not have a long tradition of freedom. I think none of the SORM enactors understand how deeply they are violating freedoms, civil rights and the law. Nor do the providers, or clients of the providers, understand what precise rights will be violated by SORM. All I can do is put the information on my web page and hope people see what is being done in my country."

Levenchuk seems to have been successful in getting the word out.

When contacted by RFE/RL, Barry Steinhardt, spokesman for the Global Internet Liberty Campaign -- a coalition of international organizations supporting free speech on the Internet -- said that SORM-2 is a "return to the bad old days of the KGB" in Russia.

Said Steinhardt: "(The secret police) wants to be able to monitor all electronic mail in order -- they say -- to get access to a few pieces. But given the history of Russia's misuse of the state security agencies, there is absolutely no reason to believe they will restrict their snooping to a few bad actors."

The Internet Society -- an international, non-profit organization that focuses on standards, education, and policy issues regarding the Internet -- issued a statement to RFE/RL which says: "One of the key principles of the Internet Society is that on-line free expression is not restricted by excessive governmental or private controls over computer hardware or software, telecommunications infrastructure, or other essential components of the Internet. We support all honest attempts to combat terrorism and other criminal activity. But the Internet should not be used to police activities."

Even Internet-savvy individuals in countries neighboring Russia are outraged.

Mikhail Doroshevich, who lives in Belarus and is the webmaster for Internews Russia, told RFE/RL that he believes SORM not only violates the Russian constitution, but is an indication that democracy is not so alive and well in Russia. Says Doroshevich: "The vital point here is to oppose the idea of such censorship and violation of the rights of individuals. The users will, certainly, try to hide information. But why should that have to occur to the majority of loyal citizens? It again pushes people to be dishonest and undermines their trust of the government since it violates the right to confidentiality of correspondence and intrudes into the private lives of citizens."

Levenchuk agrees. He says SORM-2 will have a negative effect on Internet development as a whole in Russia by causing foreigners to avoid Russian Internet providers and discouraging regular Russian citizens from using the Internet.

Says Levenchuk: "The Internet is a network of trust. But SORM-2 will be an invisible curtain of distrust. It will be like an electronic iron curtain between Russia and all others."