Published in January 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Vladimir Putin claims not to use the internet and hints strongly that he dislikes it: “50 per cent of it is porn,” he has said. The Russian President insists on using only paper and a sealed phone. He could not be more different from Barack Obama, who spends the night scanning the web. After reading Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan’s vital new book, it will be clear why Putin refuses to touch email: the Kremlin has built one of the most sophisticated surveillance systems on Earth. Everything that western intelligence services do, Putin’s security forces do much better.
Soldatov and Borogan chronicle how the Kremlin has built a system known as “Sorm.” Russian intelligence compels all the country’s internet providers to install “black boxes.” These allow Putin’s spies to not only monitor, collect and block data—they can now even access foreign websites and edit what will appear on screens in Russia, hacking without their consent or control. Russia, argue Soldatov and Borogan, now has a surveillance system the KGB would have been proud of. And it is one, they show, that western companies such as Twitter actively comply with. The social media company responds to government requests to remove accounts from visibility in Russia.
What makes this study relevant to our own debate on the so-called Snoopers’ Charter is its anger at Edward Snowden, the American who leaked CIA secrets and campaigns against surveillance. Soldatov and Borogan don’t hold back: they argue that by allowing himself to fall into Putin’s clutches, attacking America over its surveillance on Russian television, and tweeting criticisms of GCHQ from Moscow, he is now an…