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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Will Snoops Eavesdrop or Make a Profit?

Imagine that you come home one fine day to find the following letter in the mail: "Dear citizen: Buy a video camera as soon as possible and install it in your bedroom. Turn it on each night and hand over everything you record to the Federal Security Service. Buy the video camera in Store X on Street Y. Signed, the Culture Minister."

Sound preposterous? Well, all telephone companies and operators of mobile communications received an analogous letter in August — signed by Leonid Reiman, the communications minister.

In short, all telephone companies and operators of mobile communications must, with their own money, install equipment that will allow their conversations with clients to be overheard by seven security agencies, including the FSB and Customs.

Yet no one has presented a court decision blessing this move. And if someone listens to your conversation on behalf of your competitor — and not for the government — you’ll never be able to prove he’s done so.

The government has thus essentially permitted the hounding of normal businessmen. As for more highly placed people in the business world — thieves, bribetakers, oligarchs — they needn’t worry. Their cell communications can be protected with a $700 scrambler. As for use of the Internet, the World Wide Web is teeming with free cryptographic programs that will confound the FSB. Thus, this attempt to ferret out criminals by using legal eavesdropping will be no more successful than using the traffic police to catch Chechen terrorists through routine vehicle checks.

But experience has shown that Soviet Chekists and their heirs aren’t afraid of looking ridiculous when that is called for. Remember the 1997 incident in which the FSB detained U.S. citizen Richard Bliss in Rostov-on-Don? Bliss was working for the U.S. telecommunications company Qualcomm. FSB agents were apparently interested in global positioning satellite, or GPS, receivers that Bliss was using to test Qualcomm’s system in Rostov. Everyone laughed that the FSB perceived modern communications technology as spy equipment, but it achieved its goal: Qualcomm pulled up stakes and left Rostov-on-Don.

In this most recent instance, it looks like the desire to eavesdrop might be a cover for material gain. For example, now the producers of inexpensive analogous ATSs for offices shouldn’t even to try to import their goods into Russia, because such ATSs don’t allow eavesdropping in an office while the handset is in its cradle. Only more expensive digital ATSs can perform this function.

The authorities’ desire to be informed of all events actually opens up new ways for foreign producers of telephone technology to conquer our markets. After all, not all units need to be certified,