Federal Security Service Demands Access to the Russians’ Online Correspondence

Federal Security Service Demands Access to the Russians’ Online Correspondence

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The Federal Security Service (FSB) demanded access to the Russians’ online correspondence and addressed Internet services to install special equipment for that purpose. The round-the-clock access to users’ data was requested back in the summer of 2019, but only now the information about it has leaked the media.

The FSB has sent requests to Internet services, which are included in the register of information disseminating operators (they must share user data in response to requests from law-enforcement agencies, or risk fines and a possible ban on access to the service in Russia for failing to comply). The list of operators includes Avito, a Russian website for classified advertisements with sections devoted to general goods for sale, jobs, real estate, personals, etc, Habr, a Russian collaborative blog with elements of social network about IT, Computer science and anything related to the Internet, and Rutube, a web video streaming service targeted at Russian-speakers. Besides, the agency demanded the encryption keys to enable it to read users' online correspondence. In addition, 24-hour access to the IT systems of the companies was requested.

Bulk mailing of letters by special delivery from the FSB took place in the midst of “2019 Moscow protests” which were held in summer in Moscow in the wake of the denial of access of independent candidates to elections for the Moscow City Duma.

As it became known from an insider working for a company on the register of information disseminating operators to the media, the services cooperate with the FSB, and some of them have already installed the required equipment. Moreover, in November, the register members got an invitation from the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square to a meeting for explanation to those that have not yet installed the equipment.

Most likely, the FSB demanded access to the correspondence of the Russians, as there are some questions to the users of the services. This was stated by Evgeny Lifshitz, a member of the expert council of the State Duma Committee for Information Policy. He pointed out that only the individuals suspected of any illegal activity should worry about this request.

Experts note that Russian intelligence services have previously been able to receive users’ data from Internet services, too. According to them, the data varies greatly -- from IP to media access control addresses to lists of contacts to the correspondence itself.

Judging by the absence of reports so far on any prosecutorial actions against the Internet services that received the demands – and dozens of them operate the market -- the services have complied with the demand.

The register of information disseminating operators exists since 2015. It includes more than 200 services. According to the law, refusal to provide encryption keys brings on administrative violation charges that can lead to a fine of up to 1 million rubles (around $ 15,900). At the same time, the monetary penalty does not relieve of the obligation to give the access to the keys to the FSB. If this requirement is not met, the watchdog Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) can ask the court to block the service.

In April of last year, the messenger Telegram fell under this law. It was banned after refusing to give security services access to users' encrypted messages. Despite the fact that Roskomnadzor started threatening the messenger with banning long before the court ruling, the agency failed to cope with the task effectively even after it had received the power to do so. 

Roskomnadzor had to alter its tactics renaming "blocking" of access to Telegram into "degradation." Also, it started speaking about the outflow of advertisers from the messenger. However, the talk about the final blocking stopped.

It should be noted that the authorities are actively discussing the possibility of expanding the access of law enforcement agencies to personal data of the Russians. In January, Maksut Shadayev, the head of the Ministry of Communications, said that by 2024, law enforcement officers engaged in criminal intelligence and surveillance operations (including the Interior Ministry and the FSB), will have online access to various confidential data of the Russian users.

If this initiative turns into reality, law enforcers will have access to phone conversations, correspondence and bank accounts with a few clicks of a mouse.

However, after a short time, Shadayev began to deny the information that appeared in the media and said in a manner common among the officials that he had been misunderstood.