Fears of Snooping on Social Networks

ReutersChervochkin's funeral in the Moscow region in 2007. Friends say Odnoklassniki.ru helped find his suspected killer.
A new web site is seeking volunteers to provide personal information to the Federal Security Service.

The web site, FSBook.ru, resembles Facebook.com, Odnoklassniki.ru and a host of other popular social-networking sites. But it boasts no lofty ideal such as connecting friends or reuniting former classmates. Instead, it urges people to create profiles and share links to friends as a service to the FSB.

Thankfully, the site is just a spoof.

"The web site was created as a parody of Russian social-networking sites and recent public hysteria that they might be controlled by intelligence agencies," said creator Sergei Paramonov, a 23-year-old programmer from Penza.

But real Russian social-networking sites are no joke to government agencies, anti-Kremlin activists and even banks, who admit to combing through them for information. This interest is raising fears about how the personal data might be used.

The creators of the two most popular sites, Odnoklassniki.ru and Vkontakte.ru, flatly deny speculation that they work hand in hand with intelligence agencies to collect sensitive data.

There is no question, though, that the increasingly popular sites are packed with information that could create headaches for their members and law enforcement agencies alike. Odnoklassniki.ru has swelled to 15 million members from 6 million in December, while Vkontakte.ru has 11 million, compared with just 3 million in December.

Anti-Kremlin activists said they used Odnoklassniki.ru to identify one of two police officers whom they believe attacked and killed fellow activist Yury Chervochkin last year.

"We knew the name of one police officer and used his list of friends to discover the name, phone and address of the other," said Alexander Averin, spokesman for the banned National Bolshevik Party.

Chervochkin, 22, telephoned friends on Nov. 22 to tell them that he was being followed by police officers from an anti-organized crime unit. Hours later, he was found beaten and unconscious. He died three weeks later in a hospital. Police have denied involvement, and no suspects have been named in the attack.

Friends of opposition activist Maria Gaidar, the daughter of former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, used Odnoklassniki.ru to learn that a political opponent had links to the FSB, said Gaidar's friend Ilya Yashin, leader of the Yabloko party's youth group.

In late October, several young men started a brawl during a debate at a Moscow club that Gaidar, who was running for the State Duma, participated in, and they urged the audience to vote for United Russia.

After learning the name of one of the young men through the police, Gaidar's supporters discovered on Odnoklassniki.ru that he studied at an FSB border guard school and that his father served in a regional branch of the FSB's State Border Service, Yashin said.

Some government agencies also turn to Odnoklassniki.ru. A spokesman for the Federal Court Marshals Service, Igor Komissarov, said his agency used the web site as a quick way to find contact information for people evading debts.

"We could send requests to registration agencies to find out where a debtor lives, but it would take a long time to get a reply," Komissarov said. "At the same time, we can easily find the debtor's phone number" through a social-networking site.

He said agency employees always identify themselves as court marshals when they contact debtors.

In contrast, private firms hired by banks to collect outstanding debts have no qualms about masquerading as a debtor's former classmate or a potential romantic interest, said Nikolai Ivanov, head of the USB collection agency.

The homepage of FSBook.ru, a parody of popular social networking sites.

"When debtors are hiding, we start looking for them over the Internet," Ivanov said.

After a debtor is found on a social-networking web site, the debt collector locates a list of graduates from the web site of the debtor's old school, chooses a name from the list, and registers under the name on the social-networking site, Ivanov said.

This is how USB found a woman evading a 100,000 ruble car loan, he said. Not only was she located through the Internet, but the search found that she was planning a Turkish vacation with her husband. Russian law forbids delinquent debtors from leaving the country.

A USB employee, pretending to be the woman's former classmate, invited her to a class reunion. When she arrived, the employee handed her papers ordering her to pay back the debt. "She wasn't very frightened, but she understood that she mustn't joke with us," Ivanov said.

The military also appears to be taking a look at social-networking sites. St. Petersburg Deputy Governor Mikhail Oseyevsky recently proposed using Odnoklassniki.ru and Vkontakte.ru to catch young men dodging mandatory military service.

One of Odnoklassniki.ru's most famous members is President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, who said he was one of 630 people registered as Dmitry Medvedev on the site. "Some of them look very much like the original, and that's good," Medvedev said jokingly at an Internet forum in mid-April.

Fueling speculation that the web sites are used for government intelligence, SpecLab, an Ivanovo-based company that produces security systems for computers, offices and personal use and counts the FSB as one of its main clients, claimed last month that German intelligence services had acquired Odnoklassniki.ru and were using its data.

Citing former FSB officers on its staff, SpecLab said in a statement that it had obtained "unverified data from the FSB" that German intelligence had bought the web site from its Russian creator "for a fabulous price."

SpecLab also said former FSB officers considered Odnoklassniki.ru a serious security threat because the FSB lacked a database of a similar size, and that members of the intelligence community, including officers from the FSB, had been banned from posting personal information there under threat of dismissal.

A SpecLab spokeswoman, Irina Orlova, said she could not comment beyond the statement.

Odnoklassniki.ru creator Albert Popkov denied selling the web site to German intelligence. "I should say, 'Das ist fantastisch!'" Popkov said jokingly by telephone.

Popkov also said FSB officers had never approached him about cooperating and that he would reject them if they did. He said he was unaware of whether the FSB made use of information posted on the web site.

A spokesman from Germany's Federal Intelligence Service said the acquisition claim was "really far from representing any serious journalism."

"When we read that, it really made us smile," the spokesman said by telephone from Berlin, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

The German official said, however, that social-networking sites naturally posed a certain threat to security services. "This is a global phenomenon, and we also tell our staff not to disclose private information on such sites," he said.

Vkontakte.ru creator Pavel Durov did not return two e-mailed requests for comment, and his spokesman, Mikhail Ravdonikas, said he was too busy to talk over the phone.

But Durov rejected talk of FSB involvement with his web site in October, telling the Yoki.ru web site that "young conspirators should stop yielding themselves to paranoid fantasies."

The FSB declined immediate comment and requested that questions be submitted in writing. As of Tuesday, the FSB had not replied to questions submitted in late March.

Odnoklassniki.ru's members include at least several hundred intelligence officers, the Vzglyad Internet newspaper reported last month, without citing any sources. It said the members include 46 officers of the Main Intelligence Directorate, 197 officers of the General Staff, 85 officers of the FSB and the Federal Guard Service, and a few hundred workers from the Defense Ministry's map-making facilities. In addition, more than 3,000 military units and their precise locations are represented on the site, Vzglyad said.

Anton Nosik, former president of leading search engine Rambler.ru, expressed doubt that the information posted on Odnoklassniki.ru or Vkontakte.ru was of interest to law enforcement agencies. "They are oriented mainly toward young people," Nosik said. "Of what interest could young people's chitchat be to the FSB?"

Social networking sites are not the only place where law enforcement agencies can find contact information, Nosik added, noting that cell phone and Internet providers are required to hand over similar information if asked.

Popkov said Odnoklassniki.ru provided information, including private chats, to law enforcement agencies only under court orders. "We believe we must fulfill our civil responsibility," Popkov said.

Nosik said the FSB and other law enforcement agencies often turned to him when he ran Rambler.ru. "They asked me for the IPs that people used to check their e-mails so they could figure out people's whereabouts," he said, citing an instance when investigators were hunting for a suspected killer.

The bottom line, experts said, is that people should be careful about what private information they post on the Internet.

"Odnoklassniki.ru is one of the places on the Internet where people leave plenty of private information without thinking of the consequences," said Ivanov, of the USB collection agency.

Olga Brukovskaya, an official with HeadHunter, a recruiting agency, echoed this sentiment.

"A person who posts information about himself on the Internet must understand that his acquaintances and employers may see it," she said.

Staff Writer Nikolaus von Twickel contributed to this report.