Russian technology companies are producing a vast array of new tools to help the Kremlin harness the internet and tighten control over internal dissent, according to an investigative report published by the New York Times. Having perfected these tools at home, Russian firms are now striving to export them to Central Asian states and other regions.
In 2018, Russia’s failed attempt to curb the free flow of news and opinion on the Telegram social media platform revealed significant flaws in the Russian government’s ability to curb dissent. The development of these new systems to monitor internet traffic is enabling the Kremlin to close gaps, helping Russia catch up to China and Iran in terms of keeping tabs on the thoughts and actions of its population. The Ukraine war is catalyzing the quantum leap in the development of Russia’s surveillance state: the Kremlin feels an increased need to stifle anti-war sentiment and independent viewpoints. This impulse is likely to increase in the coming weeks and months following the abortive mutiny staged by Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The Times’ investigation is based on a document leak revealing details about technology companies, including MFI Soft, Vas Experts, Protel and Citadel Group, a conglomerate that was subjected to US sanctions in February. A US State Department news release cited Citadel for conducting business operations connected with “Russia’s domestic and foreign intelligence collection, monitoring and suppression of dissent.”
The new technologies, according to the documents, can determine when individuals send data or speak over encrypted channels, such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. The new technologies can also capture passwords from unencrypted platforms and give authorities an improved ability to use cellphones to track users’ movements.
While the new tools don’t enable authorities to read the specific content of encrypted emails, they enhance their ability to pinpoint the identities of those using the devices. This makes it easier for the security services to target individuals for enhanced scrutiny.
Representatives of Telegram and the Signal Foundation, the developer of the encrypted communications app, acknowledged there was no way to thwart the new spyware. It is possible, however, to use features on either Telegram or Signal to send messages through various servers, thus making it much more difficult to determine the origin and destination of the data.
Marketing material obtained by the Times in the information dump show that Russian spyware makers are now trying to export their new tools. Central Asia is viewed as a prime market, the documents show.
Justin Burke is Eurasianet's publisher.