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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

High Court Waters Down Eavesdropping Rule

The Supreme Court took issue with the government’s controversial SORM surveillance program, ruling this week that law enforcement agencies must inform Internet providers and telephone and paging companies if they are listening in on their clients.

The case, filed by St. Petersburg journalist Pavel Netupsky, could lead to more far-reaching decisions declaring as illegal any surveillance without court approval.

Netupsky challenged a Communications Ministry decree requiring companies to install equipment that would allow the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and other agencies to monitor clients.

The court ruled that a section of the decree stating that telecommunications firms do not need to be informed about surveillance violated the law on communications, which says telecom operators are responsible for confidentiality.

Monday’s decision puts the burden to inform clients about surveillance on the companies themselves, and some observers were skeptical that they would get between the authorities and a client.

"Any Russian telecommunications company is very dependent on the authorities," the Internet newspaper wrote. "Licenses, delegation of frequencies … even simple fire safety — the state has dozens of levers to ensure the loyalty of the vast majority of telecoms operators."

Another section of the decree challenged by Netupsky, which stipulates that surveillance equipment must be installed at the companies’ expense, was left intact.

Telecoms operators have been reluctant to comment on the SORM requirements, but Netupsky said all but a handful had complied.

"The equipment is there, has been there, and will likely stay there," he said.

Netupsky said by telephone from St. Petersburg that the exact impact of the case will depend on the court’s written decision, expected later this week. He said that he was hopeful the decision would state that law enforcement agencies must have a warrant to read private e-mails or listen to telephone calls.

The Communications Ministry can appeal the decision within 10 days.