Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FSB Plays Cat-and-Mouse With Internet Providers

Nail Murzakhanov, an Internet provider in Volgograd, knew he might lose his business license four years ago when he told the Federal Security Service, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, that he wouldn't give it access to the e-mail traffic of his 1,500 subscribers.

When the Communications Ministry suspended his license for failure to cooperate with the intelligence agency, known as the FSB, Murzakhanov filed suit.

Surprisingly, in August 2000, he got his license back. "In the end, I was left in peace," he said in a telephone interview.

The standoff was surprising not so much because Murzakhanov won, but because it occurred at all. Typically, Internet providers here say they do all they can to satisfy state security services, even if it means turning over the password of every client -- a telling barometer of the security services' continuing power in this 11-year-old democracy.

In theory, Russians are entitled to privacy in their communications. Both the Russian Constitution and a 1995 law prohibit law enforcement agencies from monitoring phone calls, pager messages, radio transmissions, e-mails or Internet traffic without a court order.

In practice, critics say, court orders are little more than legal niceties in Russia. An obscure set of technical regulations issued in the late 1990s permits total access without ever approaching a judge.

The regulations are known as SORM, the Russian acronym for System for Operational-Investigative Activities. They require Internet providers to give to their local FSB office whatever hardware, software and fiber-optic lines may be needed to tap into the provider's system and all its users.

While U.S. law is based on the premise that law enforcement agencies must be held in check, Russian civil rights advocates say the premise of SORM is that Russian law enforcement can be trusted to keep itself in check.

"They have all the conditions to abuse their power," said Yury Vdovin, who heads Citizens' Watch, a St. Petersburg human rights organization funded by the Ford Foundation. "The system is on purpose constructed in such a way that there is no way anyone can control them. A Russian citizen is not protected at all."

Internet providers dislike the system, especially since their contracts promise clients that their e-mail will be kept confidential. But people here still aren't inclined to fight City Hall, much less what was once the secret police.

The vast majority of providers simply aren't willing to risk their licenses to test the principle of privacy, said Eugene Prygoff, former marketing director of Kuban.net., an Internet provider in the southwestern city of Krasnodar. "They see no sense in putting up resistance. So they work out a deal with the FSB."

Civil rights organizations, compared with their Western counterparts, are still scarce and often too weak to challenge the state. Citizens' Watch, for instance, is working with a group of Russian lawyers to prepare a legal complaint against SORM. At the same time, the group's 12 employees are working on issues of freedom of the press, racial discrimination, juvenile crime, military reform and state secrecy.

Not every provider ends up installing a direct line to the local FSB office, according to Mikhail Yakushev, head of the legal department at Global One, an international firm and one of Moscow's biggest Internet providers. Each one works out its own confidential agreement with the security service, he said. He stressed that his comments reflected the views of an Internet providers association, where he heads the legal working group, not Global One.

"In practice SORM is not as abusive as it could be because the FSB doesn't have enough qualified staff or special equipment to be as active as they could," he said. "But then again, who knows what will happen next year, or next month? The biggest problem is no one to control them. If there is a line, and equipment that allows them access, then no one can track them."

Until a Supreme Court ruling in late 2000, the FSB wasn't even required to tell providers that its agents were tapping the system. The complaint in that case was filed by a 26-year-old St. Petersburg journalist, who said he got tired of waiting for civil rights groups or providers to protest.

Murzakhanov, now 36 and the director of Bayard-Slavia Communications in Volgograd, 900 kilometers south of Moscow, is the only provider to publicly raise a fuss. Murzakhanov said that in 1998, a year after the company opened, FSB agents presented the firm with a plan to hook up the local FSB offices.

Besides $100,000 worth of hardware, software and computer lines, Murzakhanov said, the FSB wanted all the tools he had as administrator of the system.

"They could very easily have read all the clients' passwords. And once they learned the passwords, they could have controlled online all the e-mail traffic," he said. "They could have read or rewritten an e-mail even before the receiver got it, and the user would never know."

His refusal to sign the FSB's plan brought untold headaches. His business was audited or inspected at least 15 times for compliance with fire, epidemiological, sanitation, labor protection and tax codes, he said. The FSB switched off his main data transmission line, forcing him to rely on low-quality, dial-up channels. His business license was suspended for six months, he said, and only after Communications Ministry officials failed to show up for four court hearings did he recover it.

Murzakhanov said the ministry deliberately punted. "They didn't want to expose the entire system of pressuring providers. They decided it was better to lose and to keep the cover on the system."

So far, no other provider is eager to follow the Volgograd example, said Anatoly Levenchuk, an Internet expert in Moscow who first revealed the SORM requirements.

"They all say his case shows all the trouble you can have if you try to oppose the authorities," he said.