The Russian Internet Censor is also a surveillance machine

While the Putin regime continues its war against Ukraine, the Kremlin has almost totally cracked down on the speech, assembly and press environment in Russia. A little-known Russian agency: Roskomnadzor, the country’s Internet and media regulator and, thus, Internet and media censorship has been at the heart of this effort.

Roskomnadzor has played a central role in slowly increasing the Putin regime’s control of the Internet in Russia, from managing a blocklist of websites with over 1.2 million URL for submitting numerous censorship orders to companies such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Google Search, YouTube and Pinterest. But a recent one New York Times investigationreporting thousands of leaked Roskomnadzor documents, shows that Russia’s Internet censor is also a surveillance machine.

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The agency was established on December 3, 2008, following a presidential decree (No. 1715), and granted a broad regulatory competence, ranging from telecommunications licenses to authorities to “supervise” mass media, telecommunications and technology of the information in Russia. It was hosted by the Russian Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media. Since its creation, the agency has played a key censorship role; among many other tactics used to bring the media under state control, the Russian government dictate me such as television and radio broadcasters gain licenses, which they became The responsibility of Roskomnadzor. In November 2012, a new law entered into force requesting Roskomnadzor to create a list of websites blocked, ostensibly to remove websites with exploitative content aimed at children. Since then, the agency has used the list to punish websites that offend the regime. The government often tries to shut down websites completely, and if the state can’t, it forces Russian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to such listed websites. Even the censor charged with the application of data protection rules for Russians, although, of course, protection from companies (not from the regime).

During the Russian government’s war against Ukraine, Roskomnadzor sent many censorship orders to foreign technology platforms and websites, asking them to remove information, such as press reports, about the war. The agency also has required restore the contents of the state. In March, Roskomnadzor too called YouTube a tool of the Western “information war” against the Russian Federation, demonstrating a authentic The Kremlin’s belief that Western technology platforms, especially those born in Silicon Valley, are literal means of projecting Western influence. His repression it was even tougher against Russia’s domestic media, taking most independent media offline and forcing more than 150 journalists to flee abroad.

The New York Times‘new investigation reveals that Roskomnadzor went far beyond managing website blocklists and filing censorship orders, more than was publicly known. For the past couple of years, the Internet censor has been compiling dossiers on individuals and organizations posting content critical of the regime. He monitored websites, social media and news organizations to label them as “pro-government”, “anti-government” or “apolitical”. Roskomnadzor, according to the Times, has “worked to expose and surveil individuals behind anti-government accounts and provided detailed information about critics’ online activities to security agencies.” Some of these people were reportedly later arrested and others fled Russia entirely.

Independent socket Jellyfish had previously reported that Roskomnadzor was using a secret monitoring system, called the Office of Operational Interaction, to monitor “hotbeds of tension” and “cases of destabilization of Russian society” (for example, protests, news criticizing the regime). The authorities then compiled reports on relevant individuals and sent them to the Russian Federal Protective Service, which guards the president and monitors for plotting against the regime, and its Interior Ministry, the National Police. Documents published from Times further describe spreadsheets tracking Russians’ online activity, going so far as, in at least one case, to provide a second document suggesting names for heightened surveillance.

Russian security agencies have been spying on citizens for decades, including online. A well-known example is the SORM-3 Internet surveillance system, operated by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the internal security body of Russia. The officials have done business push to expand SORM surveillance this spring, when the Ministry of Digital Development (which is home to Roskomnadzor) began increasing fines or even stripping telecom licenses altogether from companies that did not install SORM Internet surveillance “black boxes” -3. Russia’s 2014 data localization law is another example, forcing companies to store the master copy of Russians’ data locally so that it’s easier for authorities to access (among other reasons). But reports of leaked Roskomnadzor documents show that Russia’s Internet censor has been much more aggressive in shaping the domestic information environment and working with security agencies to do so.

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While it’s tempting to analyze Internet control in a technocentric way, emphasizing digital over social, political, and other factors, these revelations are a stark reminder to think about how offline and online coercion intersect. Russian authorities may not have the ability to intercept all data sent over the Internet every minute, decrypt it and store it in a huge database. But that imaginary future, while a terrifying prospect, grossly exaggerates what a regime needs to stifle dissent online. If Roskomnadzor can monitor the posts of influential people, identify them to security agencies and have those people threatened, arrested or worse, that in itself censors the speech. Also warn Russian citizens that if you talk too much online, the authorities will find you.

Roskomnadzor has gone far beyond managing website blocklists to accomplish this. The Putin regime has evidently beefed up its technical filtering capabilities over the past year or so, as previously failed attempts to block or slow down websites (such as Chirping last spring) gave way from February to a bit more successful blocks on Facebook, Instagram, BBC, Bellingcat and many other websites. But the Internet Censor’s shift to monitoring public online information, tracking people, and archiving information to security officers and police is a reminder that targeted surveillance and physical coercion remain inextricably linked to China’s Internet censorship regime. Russia.

Justin Sherman (@jshermcyberlisten)) is a non-resident member of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber ​​Statecraft Initiative.