During the Cold War, the KGB was scared that means of communication would be in the hands of the ordinary Soviet people. The FSB still distrusts the citizen. However, unlike the KGB, the FSB does not try to stop modern ICT but to use it: to keep the opposition under control in its own country and to give it wings abroad. Hubert Smeets discusses the two books in which Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan describe the continuity and change within the Russian intelligence services.
It must have been a hilarious moment: a KGB person who shows his colleagues a fax in the mid-1970s and tells them how dangerous this Western device is. Was there a better illustration of how scared the Communist rulers were of modern means of communication that would come into the hands of the common people. Other modern telecommunications devices were viewed with great suspicion in the Soviet Union in the last decades of the Cold War. Even an ordinary typewriter was link.
In the West in the 1980s, there was some laughter about telecom in the Soviet Union. It was anything but state of the art and thus symbolized the inability of the socialist planned economy to keep pace with the West technologically, a gap that would eventually lead to its downfall.
But some Soviet officials were less narrow-minded than they seemed at the time. In general terms, the KGB had remained up-to-date since the Second World War. The headquarters on the Loebjanka was fascinated by all the innovative possibilities in telecommunications. To this end, the authorities even set up special concentration camps and prisons after 1945, where highly qualified but detained engineers were put to work to make inventions that could give the Soviet power a technological lead over the West.
One of the best minds was Lev Kopelev, a linguist from Kharkov who was detained after the war because he had criticized the behavior of the Red Army in Germany as a soldier. In a special laboratory camp , the so-called sharashka in Marfino, Kopelev discovered a method for unraveling and identifying voices – for example from telephone conversations -. That technique would come in handy later, for example at the 1980 Olympics in Russia. Moscow displayed its hospitality on the street. Behind the front doors the check was increased to great heights.
Fathers of the Russian internet
The phonoscopy, as Kopelev coined the find, was not the only innovation at the time of communism. In the more relaxed phase of the Cold War, communication technology remained a (secret) priority of the authorities in the Soviet Union. For example, nuclear physicist Alexe Soldatov, father of the journalist Andrei Soldatov, was at the start of his own Soviet communication network in the early 1980s that connected all major research centers in the country and would later lay the foundation for the Russian internet. His knowledge and expertise were so appreciated that Alexey Soldatov was allowed to be a junior minister for connections and mass communication for nearly two years between 2008 and 2010 under President Dmitry Medvedev, the interstate who loved computer gadgets and in his short term the Russian citizens flocked to the worldwide web connected.
Nor is it a coincidence that his son Andrei Soldatov, main speaker on the second October Lecture Who’s afraid of the FSB , became one of Russia’s best-entered cyber journalists a few decades later. Together with his partner Irina Borogan, he wrote two books that now have the status of standard work: The New Nobility. The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB from 2010 and the recently revised The Red Web. The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries from 2017.
In both books Soldatov and Borogan limit themselves to the cold facts and interpretations. They do not indulge in fantastic hypotheses. Soldatov and Borogan sketches in a businesslike way and without moralistic frills how the state has been aiming for a dual purpose from the beginning of the presidency of Vladimir Putin. In their own country, the new IT companies must be submitted to the government and internet communication must be checked. At the same time, the Russian state leaves few resources unused to deploy the same internet across the border for its own political-military resources.
The Kremlin has achieved great success in this regard. In terms of cybernetic warfare, Russia is at the forefront. Although the irrefutable evidence has never been provided, there are indications, according to Soldatov and Borogan, that Russian hackers managed to break down Estonia’s government apparatus in 2007. Both have even fewer doubts about Russia’s involvement in the US Democratic Party’s computers in 2016.
A serious discussion about whether a cyber war also has borders has not got off the ground in Russia all these years. That gap is traceable to the role that engineers still had in the Soviet Union. Technology was paramount. Its use was of later concern. They prefer not to worry about privacy and other derivative issues, according to son Soldatov and Borogan. And that is still true, they write.
In The New NobilitySoldatov and Borogan describe the FSB’s comeback in the first decade of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. When Putin became the head of state of Russia in 2000, the state security service under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had had ten bad years. After the unsuccessful coup d’etat of August 1991 against lawfully elected authority in the Soviet Union and Russia, President Yeltsin had split the “communist” KGB into multiple services for domestic and foreign espionage or security. The later FSB was by far the largest service from the start and also retained its own prison in Lefortovo, but it had less scope in its own country than the KGB. The further development of commercial business, with which the KGB had already started, took flight.
But especially through the fight against (international) terrorism, the FSB was able to really rise to great heights again. The service was given a free hand by President Putin, who had been a blue Monday director of the FSB in 1998 and had recruited a large part of his staff and ministers from the ranks of the former KGB in St Petersburg. The protection that the FSB received from the Kremlin was unwavering. Even if the FSB made demonstrable mistakes, such as the dismay of the musical theater Nord-Ost (2002) in Moscow and the school in Beslan (2004) in the Caucasus, the service had no reason to investigate. The violence instruction for the FSB never had to be tested.
In The Red Web , Soldatov and Borogan focus primarily on objectives and the approach of the FSB and the Kremlin. They accurately describe how the FSB works in the cyber world and how the state apparatus tries to control all conceivable aspects of the internet.
Sorm 1: capturing all communication
The basis for this was the ‘System for Operational Search Methods’, implemented in 1998 – abbreviated to SORM in Russian – which could simply bypass the potentially rebellious providers, who would place more value on the free movement of data than on state security. This system was the back door of the internet, said Soldatov and Borogan, who could open the secret services undisturbed to gain access to the internet. In short, a permanent monitoring station.
It didn’t stop there. The Kremlin soon realized that the internet would not only radically change the mutual communication of citizens, but also the playing field of the classical mass media. The Roskomnadzor inspection service was increasingly given powers – and personnel – to discipline the old and new media.
One of the stumbling blocks was the Internet television station Dozhd (Regen), which had been windy under President Medvedev and could even broadcast by cable for about 12 million viewers a month. After the civil protests against the falsified parliamentary elections of 2011, this came to an end and Dozhd had to withdraw to internet distribution.
That the government had control over all major television channels and most radio stations that broadcast their message via the hardware of ether and cable – sometimes through loyal businessmen who kept a media leg in addition to their core business – was soon not enough. The (journalistic) media that only try to reach their audience via the internet, must also be able to be controlled. Mandatory registration of media licenses, which can also be revoked as a sanction, became a proven means of controlling the press. But an old-fashioned tool. More had to be done to complete the discipline.
Two innovative companies were particularly interested in Kremlin and FSB: namely search engine Yandex and virus catcher Kaspersky. Yandex had good connections with the Kremlin through top man Arkadi Volozj.
Jevgeni Kaspersky, founder of the group of the same name, was trained as an encryption specialist and code cracker at the KGB. Nevertheless, according to Soldatov and Borogan, both companies had developed into international players independently, not relying excessively on government protection.
The independence of a ‘roof’ at the highest level made Yandex and Kaspersky relatively autonomous in relation to the state. Kaspersky, for example, had a Janus head. Now and then he shot the critical newspaper Novaja Gazetato help, then he supported an organization of the Orthodox Church that wants to censor the internet in order to protect children. In terms of innovative strength and market share, Yandex had become a sort of Google and Uber for the Russian-speaking internet community. Yandex does not only search by keyword for its users, but also aggregates news, has its own financial services and mediates a la Uber.
Yandex was brought under control by bombing it into a media organization that had to be under the auspices of Roskomnadzor. Kaspersky was more compromised by the FSB and the Ministry of the Interior, who presented themselves as customers of the company and subsequently demanded more and more services from the global group. The pivot in this web became forensic specialist Roeslan Stoyanov, who managed all government contracts at Kaspersky. Stoyanov was finally arrested at the end of 2016 and imprisoned in Lefortovo. He knew too much, Soldatov and Borogan write.
When the internet was under control in their own country, the big leap forward abroad was in the pipeline. Soldatov and Borogan are almost certain that the Democratic Party in the United States has been hacked as part of a Russian action plan, in which Wikileaks also played a role. When that came to light, a number of involved performers were quickly banned.
Why did the Russian state also turn against the people who had been loyal in the fight against terrorism and crime via the internet? Stoyanov gave the answer from the Lefortovo prison in a letter smuggled out of his cell. “The paradigm in cyber crime has changed,” he wrote. “Cyber crime is now closely linked to geopolitics.”
That completes the circle. The backlog that the KGB had when the service was dissolved in 1991 has resulted in a lead for the FSB. Technically, the Russian intelligence services have bridged the gap with the West. More than that even. Because of their fearlessness and brutality, they have taken new paths. They have crossed the line between passive observation and collecting and active intervention. It was obvious that the internet offered the FSB the opportunity to curb the media in its own country. The fact that the intelligence services started a cyber war against ‘hostile’ states from the former Soviet Union, such as Estonia and Ukraine, was also in line with expectations. But the fact that they had the courage to intervene during the US presidential election was an unprecedented novelty.
What never disappeared: distrust of their own people
But despite these innovations, the underlying ideas with which the services work, the past decades have not changed significantly. “The Soviet officials never trusted the people. They firmly believed that any Russian citizen could spontaneously go insane or intoxicated at any time, break the stuff at work or come into contact with suspicious foreigners and reveal state secrets. In short, the authorities despised the people they ruled, “said Soldatov and Borogan in The Red Web . “Putin is a product of this thinking. He does not believe in people or in a good-natured society. Serious issues such as management must be left to professionals, are government officials. ” Citizens must therefore remain far from politics.
The message that, according to Soldatov Borogan, now lingers is this: nobody can be trusted. “This cynicism was Putin’s gift to America.”