'They are watching': Inside Russia's vast surveillance state

Russia's Internet regulator Roskomnadzor is part of a larger tech surveillance apparatus that Russian President Vladimir Putin has built over the years. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW - Four days into the war in Ukraine, Russia's expansive surveillance and censorship apparatus was already hard at work.

Roughly 800 miles (1,287km) east of Moscow, the authorities in the Republic of Bashkortostan, one of Russia's 85 regions, were busy tabulating the mood of comments in social media messages. They marked down YouTube posts that they said criticised the Russian government. They noted the reaction to a local protest.

Then they compiled their findings. One report about the "destabilisation of Russian society" pointed to an editorial from a news site deemed "oppositional" to the government that said President Vladimir Putin was pursuing his own self-interest by invading Ukraine. A dossier detailed who owned the site and where they lived.

Another Feb 28 dispatch, titled "Presence of Protest Moods", warned that some had expressed support for protesters and "spoke about the need to stop the war".

The report was among nearly 160,000 records from the Bashkortostan office of Russia's powerful internet regulator, Roskomnadzor.

Together, the documents detail the inner workings of a critical facet of Mr Putin's surveillance and censorship system, which his government uses to find and track opponents, squash dissent and suppress independent information.

The internet regulator is part of a larger tech apparatus that Mr Putin has built over the years, which also includes a domestic spying system that intercepts phone calls and internet traffic, online disinformation campaigns, and the hacking of other nations' government systems.

The system is built to control outbursts such as the one this week, when protesters across Russia rallied against a policy that would press 300,000 people into military service for the Ukraine war. At least 1,300 people have been detained for protesting.

More than 700 gigabytes of records from Roskomnadzor's Bashkortostan branch were made publicly available online in March by DDoSecrets, a group that publishes hacked documents.

The New York Times built software and a search tool to analyse the Russian-language documents, spreadsheets, videos and government presentations. Five individuals directly targeted by Roskomnadzor in the files were interviewed, along with lawyers, activists and companies who have battled the agency and other experts on Russian surveillance and censorship.

Roskomnadzor did not respond to requests for comment.

"This is part of authoritarianism," said Mr Abbas Gallyamov, a former top government official in Bashkortostan whom Roskomnadzor scrutinised because of his criticism of Mr Putin. "They are watching."

Putin's Eyes on the Internet

Roskomnadzor (pronounced Ros-com-nod-zor) was started in 2008 as a bureaucratic backwater with a few dozen employees who regulated radio signals, telecom and postal delivery. Its role expanded as Kremlin concerns grew about the internet, which was under less state control than television and radio, leading to more activity from independent and opposition media.

After social media helped facilitate protests during the 2010 Arab Spring and in Moscow in 2011, Russian authorities had Roskomnadzor exert more control, said Andrei Soldatov, co-author of a book on Russian internet censorship and surveillance.

From its headquarters in Moscow, the agency squeezed companies that provided internet access. Starting in 2012, the year Mr Putin retook the presidency, Roskomnadzor built a blacklist of websites that the companies were required to block.

That list now includes more than 1.2 million banned URLs, including local political news websites, social media profile pages, pornography and gambling platforms, said civil society group Roskomsvoboda which tracks the blocks.

Over the past decade, the agency also fined and penalised Google, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram to force them to remove what the authorities deemed to be illicit content. In 2016, LinkedIn was shut down in Russia after being sanctioned for not storing data on Russian users in the country's data centres.

By 2019, the authorities wanted internet control to go further. Roskomnadzor ordered new censorship technology, known as a "technical means for countering threats", installed in telecom networks around the country, according to the documents. The agency then blocked and slowed down websites from Moscow.

Officials demanded that local internet services confirm that the censorship systems had been installed, according to the documents. Schematics showed where the censorship boxes should be placed in the network. Roskomnadzor workers visited sites to check that equipment was installed correctly and sent reports on the efficacy of the technology.

One early target of the blocking system was Twitter. In 2021, the authorities throttled access to the social media service to a crawl.

Since the invasion of Ukraine this year, Roskomnadzor has also blocked Facebook, Instagram and other websites, as well as many virtual private networks, or VPNs, which are used to bypass internet controls.

In 2020, Mr Andrei Lipov, a government technocrat who supports a Russian internet that is more closed off from the West, took charge of Roskomnadzor. Under his guidance, the agency has operated even more like an intelligence service.

Mr Vladimir Voronin, a lawyer who has represented activists and media groups targeted by Roskomnadzor, said the agency also became closer to the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic intelligence agency once led by Mr Putin. The FSB operates a spy system, called the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which is used to monitor phone calls and internet traffic in Russia.

The scrutiny took a toll on surveillance targets. ProUfu.ru, a local news site in Bashkortostan that wrote critically about the government, said the authorities pressured businesses to stop advertising with it. In the records, censors flagged ProUfu.ru for the critical Ukraine editorial written about Mr Putin in February.

"Businessmen are threatened with closure for enterprises if they dare to meet us halfway," the group, which now goes by Prufy, said on its website. "Our resources are depleted." NYTIMES

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