Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FSB Now Wired to Read Your E-Mail

Critics and fans of the security services agree: Internet service providers across Russia are helping the main KGB successor agencies to read private e-mails and other Internet traffic, as part of an ambitious internal espionage program called SORM-2.

"SORM implementation is in full force and I suspect that all [Internet service] providers have at least begun the process and many have completed it," said Yury Vdovin, vice chairman of the St. Petersburg-based Citizens' Watch human rights group.

"None of the providers will talk about it, though," Vdovin added. "They are all afraid."

"All providers are gradually starting to implement SORM, because their licenses will be revoked if they don't," agreed Yelena Volchinskaya, a consultant for the State Duma Security Council and author of the recent book "Internet and Glasnost." Unlike Vdovin, she supports the SORM-2 project as a valuable crime-fighting tool.

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 all 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.

So far, only one Internet service provider, Bayard-Slavia of Volgograd, has publicly refused to cooperate with the new regulation. In March, Bayard-Slavia was shut down, officially because of a problem with its government-issued license; company director, Nail Murzakhanov says he was told he would be closed if he did not accept SORM.

Murzakhanov argues the FSB will be able to use SORM-2 to do everything from retrieving and altering e-mail communication to selling commercial secrets and other stolen information. But Murzakhanov says the FSB is still powerless in one key area - it has no technical experts who would allow it to understand the system on its own. Murzakhanov insists the key to fighting SORM is simply refusing to comply, no matter what the costs.

But of Russia's telecommunications companies, Bayard-Slavia was virtually alone in its outspoken opposition to SORM-2.

Most others prefer not to talk about it at all. Moscow telecommunications companies and Internet service providers were hesitant to confirm or deny whether they have installed SORM-2 links to Lubyanka.

Technology specialists at Combellga, one of Moscow's largest telecommunications companies, claimed not to know if the technology had been installed. One systems operator said that "in my opinion, we haven't started it - yet."

Technology specialists at Glasnet, a major Internet service provider, refused to comment and referred all calls to the public relations director, who was unavailable for comment at the time.

A Global One representative said no one was available to discuss SORM, while the FSB and theCommunications Committee failed to respond to faxed questions.

Citizens' Watch says St. Petersburg's Web Plus - an Internet service provider owned by Telekominvest - has installed SORM-2 equipment, making it possible for the local FSB to receive transmissions of their choice in real time. No one was available to comment at Web Plus.

On Nov. 12, the State Communications Committee - co-author of SORM-2 - was renamed the Communications Ministry. Five days later, newly appointed Communications Minister Leonid Reiman hit the podium with a call for stricter Internet controls. He did not specifically mention SORM.

But despite the elevation of Goskomsvyaz to the Cabinet, Vdovin says it's still the FSB calling the shots.

"[The ministry] does what the FSB tells them to do," Vdovin said.

Volchinskaya agreed that the FSB is the real player in the SORM game and that the Goskomsvyaz promotion would have very little effect.

The FSB says SORM will help law enforcement track and capture criminals ranging from tax evaders to pedophiles because such people may conduct or discuss their business electronically.

"SORM is a normal system for locating criminals and tax evaders. The United States has such a system - every country does," Volchinskaya said. "The question is how the FSB will use this system. But, according to the law, they can only monitor transmissions with a court order."

Human rights groups counter that the Russian security services - which have never renounced their KGB traditions - cannot be trusted with such power. They argue that agents will abuse SORM to assemble political dossiers for blackmail purposes and to steal and sell commercial secrets. And they worry that the FSB will not bother getting a court order when they can see private citizens' personal information with the click of a mouse.

The U.S. government does indeed have an e-mail monitoring program - and one that also circumvents the courts. The U.S. National Security Agency's Echelon project, though still highly secretive, is used to monitor and store e-mail and other electronic communications around the world.

Some U.S. Internet and privacy experts nevertheless find SORM-2 more disquieting than Echelon.

"With SORM-2, Russia is going farther than any other democratic country in controlling the design of private-sector communications systems for surveillance purposes," said Jim Dempsey, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.

"The proposal is particularly troubling given the lack of clear legal standards and effective judicial oversight for FSB activation of SORM capabilities.

"Echelon and its counterparts in the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand take the technology as it finds it - that is, Echelon is not coercive. It does not rely upon government-mandated surveillance features being built into telecom systems."

The Duma's Volchinskaya argues that it is not a question of coercion, but of finances. "The FSB doesn't have the money [for SORM]," she said, "and the government won't pass this in the budget."