Snowden’s Putin Problem

Snowden Betrayed: How the World’s Favorite Open Government Activist Got Played


On Thursday, April 17, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden made an appearance of questionable motive on Russia’s annual televised question-and-answer session “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin.”

Snowden, speaking via video link, asked Russian President Vladimir Putin about his country’s surveillance capabilities and if he believed mass surveillance was a justifiable counterterrorism tactic. “[D]oes Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?” Snowden inquired.

According to state-run English language media outlet RT:

Putin revealed that Russia uses surveillance techniques for spying on individuals, but this is “only with the sanction of a court order.” He added that “this is our law and therefore there is no mass surveillance in our country.”

There was plenty of joking by Putin, who began his answer to Snowden by saying, “You are a former agent or spy. I used to work for an intelligence agency, so we are going to talk the same professional language.” He concluded by adding with a smile that he hopes that Russia will never have the same kind of uncontrollable surveillance as America and this is unlikely to happen as “Russia does not have as much money to spend on this as they do in the States.”

Putin’s statement, while not a lie, is a wildly liberal interpretation of the truth. His doublespeak raises a number of questions. First, what are the court-ordered surveillance techniques Putin is referring to? Second, what’s the legal basis for such practices? Third, why did Snowden bother to even ask the question in the first place?

First, Putin, far from being naive, is aware that foreign governments and domestic opposition leaders consider the Russian surveillance state an active threat. At the same time, ceding to their concerns risks losing the faith of his constituency, as does lying. Thus, rather than lying, Putin manipulates, or spins, the truth.

This “spin” can be broken down as follows: All data is derived from an individual’s communications. Russian intelligence services collections this data. Therefore, Russia collects data from a multiplicity of individuals, not an amorphous “mass.” By emphasizing that surveillance targets “individuals,” Putin frames the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) activities as personalized and conducted with a degree of discernment. He doesn’t outright deny that the FSB has built an all-encompassing dragnet — he just characterizes it differently.

The infrastructure that allows the Russian government to capture telecommunications is called SORM, or System of Operative-Investigative Measures. Developed in the mid-1980s and fully implemented in 1992, SORM has since expanded to include all digital and mobile communications. SORM goes beyond metadata and is able to capture full recordings of conversations, as well as the content of emails, texts, online conversations, etc.

For Internet communications, SORM directly taps into an ISPs’ network through a series of rerouting devices (“black boxes”) and high-speed communications lines. These provide FSB headquarters with real-time acquisition capabilities. All ISPs are legally required to install these devices.

Because of SORM, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow informed American travelers heading to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi that: “Travelers should be aware that Russian Federal law permits the monitoring, retention and analysis of all data that traverses Russian communication networks, including internet browsing, e-mail messages, telephone calls, and fax transmissions.” According to Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, a list of “Travel Cyber Security Best Practices” published in March 2013 further noted that travelers should: carry “clean” electronic devices (i.e., ones where personal identifying and sensitive information has been removed), not connect to local ISPs, change passwords before and after the trip, and purchase “burners” to use in the country that can be easily disposed of upon leaving.

Second, in Putin’s response, he contends that government surveillance is “strictly controlled…by the law and regulated by the law.” Putin’s not lying either — SORM, as Soldatov and Borogan noted, is a “lawful interception of all electronic utterance.” All activities, Putin said, are conducted “only with the sanction of a court order.”

Putin is likely referring to the Russian constitution and 1995 law concerning data collection. Chapter 2, article 23 ensures a right to privacy in correspondence “of telephone conversations, postal, telegraph and other messages. Any restriction of this right shall be allowed only under an order of a court of law.” Thus, even when the 1995 Law on Operational Investigations gave the FSB the green light to monitor all communications, it was still required to first get a court order.

In practice, these court orders are nothing more than quaint symbolism. Since SORM plugs the FSB directly into telecommunications networks and ISPs, there’s no need for a warrant to set up a wiretap. The FSB needs a warrant to use information collected by SORM. However, these warrants, which are internal to the FSB and inaccessible to telecoms, are utterly superfluous.

Even if the FSB takes the extra set to get a warrant, rule of law in Russia is notoriously poor — courts are corrupt and quick to act on cases that further the interests of state. The courts, as a 2012 Supreme Court ruling on the surveillance of opposition member Maxim Petlin shows, are happy to allow surveillance against critics of the Putin administration, the integrity of civil society be damned.

Finally, what were Snowden’s intentions? Some, such as Mark Galeotti at New York University, think the question was in his “handler’s” (the Russians’) interests. Snowden denied this claim in an op-ed published in the Guardian the next day, April 18. Snowden stated his question was meant to force Putin to say something, anything about Russia’s mass surveillance programs. He cited Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) exchange with the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on whether or not the NSA was monitoring the communications of millions of Americans — an exchange his question was meant to mirror. Getting Putin to confirm or deny mass surveillance on the record, in his mind, would “provide opportunities for serious journalists and civil society to push the discussion further.”

Snowden’s op-ed has, at the very least, tweeted Fletcher School Professor Dan Drezner, “[complicated] the claim that he is in Vladimir Putin’s pocket.” It offered Snowden a space to clarify his opinions on mass surveillance in Russia and to applaud himself for extracting an “evasive response” from Putin. Unfortunately for Snowden, there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to the Russian government’s opinion of its wiretapping enterprise — “evasive responses” have been the hallmark of the Russian surveillance state from the get-go. This secrecy is here to stay as the proliferation of new social media sites, easily accessible personal mobile and digital technologies, and wider Internet penetration provide a power-hungry Putin and his apparatchiks with the opportunity to broaden the scope of their surveillance.

Reportedly, that process has already begun. In October 2013, shortly after Snowden was granted asylum, Russian business daily Kommersant broke the news that by July 2014 a new regulation could broaden the amount of data the FSB collects from ISPs. The regulation would force ISPs to capture and hold personal identifying information of users in a data exchange, such as email addresses, the physical locations of those using video chat services, and more.

Snowden’s “serious journalists” are trapped in a quagmire as well. By forcibly silencing independent media and ridding the country of journalists who fail to fall in line, whether through deportation, libel, imprisonment or even murder, Putin has proven he is committed to preventing open dialogue and quashing dissent. And with an approval rating of 80%, a question from Russia’s poster child for the abuse of American power is unlikely to start a movement powerful enough to threaten the Kremlin’s stronghold.

But Putin’s answer was still a poorly constructed half-truth. “So why all the criticism?” Snowden asked.

Well, Ed, look where you’re standing.