Authorities in Russia maintain tight control over the information which is distributed via the Internet, but how do ordinary Russians feel about it?
Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian secret services, has written about the Kremlin’s Internet surveillance program. In an article published by Newsweek, he discusses the monitoring activities and their effect on the Russian people.
Is Russia worried by Internet surveillance?
Compared to the privacy concerns that are increasingly evident in countries around the world, Russians seem to be relatively relaxed about state surveillance. “Russians accept the idea that state surveillance is something that cannot be changed,” writes Soldatov.
The sense that the government will inevitably monitor private communications may be due to the close ties between technology companies and security services, he continues.
Since Putin returned to power, efforts to control social media have redoubled. Soldatov believes that the Arab Spring is responsible for the shifting attitudes, and a notable shift occurred after Putin replaced Dmitry Medvedev.
Medvedev believed that technology could be used to positive effect, but “Putin has a KGB mentality and his mindset is influenced by the events of 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.” His fear of social media stems from its role in the so-called Color Revolutions, a series of mass uprisings in former Soviet states, and the Arab Spring.
Fear of mass protests leads to use of surveillance and trolls
Russian officials believe in a Western conspiracy to overthrow the Putin regime using social media to incite mass protests. The concern is so great that officials have proposed a set of obligatory courses for college students, which aim to educate young people about how to prevent a color revolution happening in Russia.
As well as monitoring opposition activists, the Kremlin employs pro-regime trolls to influence online discourse. Soldatov claims that the “trolls play with a sense of grievance against the West, about promises that have been broken and the legacy of the Second World War and the idea that the Soviet Union was the country that won the war.”
The government employs a number of so-called “hacker patriots” to troll online. Young, poorly educated people from the regions are attracted to pro-government youth organizations as a way of starting their careers. Businessman turned politician Vladislav Surkov claimed that these organizations “are a social lift for people from the regions.”
These people were first enlisted by the government in case of mass street protests. It was thought that they could provide a physical pro-government presence on the streets, but since those protests did not materialize they were put to work on online campaigns.
The Russian middle class is also suffering a sense of insecurity. Events in Ukraine mean that many former supporters of opposition figure Alexei Navalny believe that Putin is the only way to ensure that a Maidan revolution does not occur in Russia.
Russian agencies do not have the same capabilities as the NSA
According to Soldatov, there are major differences between the methods employed by the NSA, and those of the FSB. He believes that the NSA has a major advantage in internet surveillance compared to the FSB because most people use security software built by U.S. companies, and “all traffic generally goes through the U.S.”
Although Putin previously claimed that Russia subscribed to a different set of ethics than the U.S., that has since been disproved. When officials realized that Russian social network VKontakte was the most popular in Ukraine, they requested the details of Ukrainian online activists from the company.
Furthermore the FSB does not have the capacity to store huge amounts of data like the NSA does. The Russian agency has refused to invest in data storage facilities, and instead plans to place the cost of surveillance on tech companies themselves.
What is the FSB hoping to achieve with its surveillance program?
“The point is intimidation,” writes Soldatov. He likens the situation to the 1980s, when widespread phone tapping made people prefer to discuss sensitive matters in person. However the fall of the Soviet Union revealed that the KGB could in fact only listen to 300 phone lines in Moscow.
Despite the lack of technical capabilities, the authorities still managed to intimidate the population using the idea of widespread surveillance. “I think it is still about intimidation,” said Soldatov.
Maintaining a stranglehold on information allows the Kremlin to convince ordinary Russians that a Putin-led government is the only way to ensure political stability. Media sources decrying the moral bankruptcy of the United States and its allies means Putin is portrayed as the savior of the unique Russian culture, and keeps opposition activism to a minimum.