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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sale of Spy Pen Lands Businessman in Court

Russia.alibaba.comA pen similar to the one that got the Kemerovo businessman in trouble.

Snooping might be a notorious tradition of the security services, but the sale of spying equipment is illegal and can result in prison time — even if the devices are readily available in Moscow.

This curious fact was highlighted last week when investigators in the Siberian region of Kemerovo announced that a court had handed down a one-year suspended sentence to a 46-year-old man for attempting to sell a spy camera hidden in a ballpoint pen.

The man caught the attention of police when he offered various spy cameras for sale on a local web site, the region’s Investigative Committee said in a statement.

Officers then pretended to be interested and bought a spy ballpoint pen for 11,000 rubles ($348), the committee said.

The man was subsequently tried and pleaded guilty, the statement said. It did not say when the trial was held.

Article 138 of the Criminal Code says that eavesdropping on telephone, postal or other communications carries a penalty of up to one year of correctional labor, while the illegal production, sale or purchase of technical devices can be punished with up to three years in prison.

By contrast, in most U.S. states, hidden video surveillance is legal as long as it does not intrude in private areas like bathrooms, bedrooms and dressing rooms.

In Germany, which has some of the strictest privacy laws in Europe, only remote-controlled bugging devices and spy cameras that transmit live footage are prohibited by law.

The strict Russian law is a legacy of the 1990s, when the government feared that private companies would engage in spying activities that it ­believed should be monopolized by the state.

Yet spy cameras are widely available, for instance, at Moscow’s Savyolovsky electronics market and on the Russian Internet. At least one site, Podarkidarom.ru, was offering a spy ballpoint pen for 13,700 rubles ($430) when accessed this week, although similar products sell for less than $20 on U.S. web sites.

A man who answered the phone at the number given on Spycamera.ru said the devices sold on his web site were not classified as illegal bugging devices.

He refused to give his name before hanging up.

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on security services who runs the Agentura.ru web site, said cases like the one in Kemerovo were rare and the more pressing problem was corrupt law enforcement officials offering eavesdropping services for money.

“In the 1990s, a lot of illegal industrial espionage was conducted by private companies,” he said. “But today this market is firmly in the hands of the state.”

Soldatov explained that Federal Security Service officers could link desired espionage targets to a criminal case and then intercept telephone calls and e-mails.

The law only allows the Federal Security Service to eavesdrop on telephone calls, e-mails and mail with permission from a judge.

Interestingly, the secret services are increasingly asking courts for permission to eavesdrop on telephone calls and read private mail, according to new statistics from the Supreme Court.

The secret services made 66,000 requests to tap phones and nearly 7,800 requests to read mail in the first half of this year, compared with 49,500 wiretapping requests and 7,300 mail requests in the same period last year. A vast majority of the requests were approved. (Story, Page 3.)

Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the Indem think tank, said the problem was not so much the law itself but how government agencies applied it. He pointed to the case of lawyer Boris Kuznetsov, who accused the FSB of illegally wiretapping the phone of his client, former Senator Levon Chakhmakhchyan.

Kuznetsov was charged with disclosing state secrets when he complained to the Constitutional Court that the bugging was a human rights violation. He fled the country in 2007 and was granted political asylum in the United States the following year.

“While some are allowed to ignore it, the law is used like a hammer against others,” Korgunyuk said.