State Discloses Surveillance of Internet

SORM, a government program to monitor e-mails and other electronic or Internet communications, has long been a matter for public debate. But this week marked the first time the secretive program was ever publicly acknowledged by the government.

Alexei Rokotyan, head of the electronic communications department of the Communications Ministry, on Thursday told a televised round-table discussion that through SORM the government now has access to all information transmitted via Russian Internet service providers.

"Speaking about the incorporation of SORM into the Russian communications network, we are speaking not about establishing a system of global surveillance of the Internet, or total control of the information that is transmitted via the global network. Instead, we are speaking about [monitoring] individual cases according to the law," Rokotyan said.

"Security organs and special forces have the right - and now the capability - to monitor private correspondence and telephone conversations of individual citizens in the name of establishing legal order."

SORM - which stands for Sistema Operativno-Rozysknykh Meropriyatii, or System for Operational-Investigative Activities - was first born in a 1995 government regulation that gave the security services the right to monitor telecommunications transmissions, provided they first obtained a warrant.

SORM-2 was an additional regulation issued in July 1998 by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and by the State Communications Committee. It mandated that Internet service providers install, at their own expense, technology to link their computers to those at FSB headquarters - allowing the agency to monitor select electronic transmissions, from private e-mails to e-commerce purchases, in real time.

The costs to the Internet service provider are estimated from $10,000 to $30,000, not including any future upgrades.

That's enough to shut down some smaller providers, and some SORM-watchers argue that the big Internet players actually welcome SORM as it helps them shore up their market shares.

SORM-2 listening devices route copies of all Internet traffic to FSB computers, warrant or no. In theory, a warrant is needed to actually read any of the documentation piling up in the FSB's hands.

But in practice, human rights groups say, the FSB is unlikely to worry about such legal niceties when the information it wants is just a mouse click away.

Human rights activists equate this with a loss of Internet privacy for the more than 1 million people in Russia who use the Internet, and for tens of thousands more who use credit cards or other electronic banking instruments here.

Rokotyan was careful to point out that SORM would not breach the Constitution, which grants citizens the right to private correspondence, and that citizens would be "safeguarded" against any abuses by the security organs of their new powers.

But Yury Vdovin, vice chairman of the St. Petersburg-based Citizens' Watch human rights group, was less than convinced.

"They always say that it's all under control and there's no reason to be afraid," he said. "But no one will be monitoring them, and there are no safeguards."