The final months ahead of the elections to the Russian State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) were marked by a total cleansing of the political field (see EDM, September 13). This included an aggressive crackdown on the Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF) (RIA Novosti, June 9), entailing reprisals against everyone who supported the structures of Alexei Navalny (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, May 17), and the denouncement as “foreign agents” of the overwhelming number of opposition media outlets (BBC News—Russian service, August 20).
At the same time, Russian hackers made public the databases of ACF supporters as well as the “smart voting” system championed by Navalny, designed to help any candidates opposing the ruling United Russia party to enter the parliament. As of the end of August, more than 700 people registered in the databases reported visits to their homes by law enforcement officers demanding “explanations” for their actions or donations to the ACF (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, August 21).
State-supported “hacktivism” and law enforcement repressions have been accompanied by a systematic—though often veiled—increase in censorship on the Internet. Pressure on Western companies has become one method. Thus, Russia entered the top three countries sending the largest number of requests to remove content from Twitter (Meduza.io, July 14). Google also was forced to remove about half a million links from search results based on the requirements of Roskomnadzor and the new Russian law aimed at combating virtual private networks (VPN—a means of circumventing local firewalls) (Cnews.ru, July 22).
In the spring, a Moscow court fined Twitter 8.9 million rubles ($120,000) for refusing to remove calls to protest (Novaya Gazeta, April 2). Another way to put pressure on foreign companies was the slowdown of Western social networks in the Russian segment (Runet) (BBC—Russian service, March 19). The requirement for unquestioning execution of any government orders applies to Russian companies as well. For example, in early September, Yandex removed links to the Smart Voting website from its search results due to the site’s inclusion on Roskomnadzor’s registry of prohibited online pages (RIA Novosti, September 7).
Another repressive method may be seen in the constant attempts of the Russian special services to gain access to confidential online correspondence of private users. In particular, back in May, the Federal Security Service (FSB) announced its intention to create a universal system of encryption keys for mobile applications to provide law enforcement officers access to encrypted information (RIA Novosti, May 12).
But according to Michael Talanov, an IT specialist from San Francisco, California, the Russian authorities have had access to the personal online data of users for quite some time. According to him, the Russian special services can intercept any communications on their territory, including through encrypted messengers. This is done via a legal request sent to international Internet regulators for the issuance of a fake Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption certificate to the Russian authorities. Such a procedure is intended for persons or companies suspected of terrorist activities, but the Kremlin uses it universally. Thus, the Russian special services are able to intercept all online traffic physically passing within Russian borders. In addition to accessing confidential data, this technology, according to Talanov, is used to replace Internet content (Author’s interview, September 9).
The Russian authorities do not bother to conceal the fact that they largely borrowed the technologies for establishing full control over the Internet space from their Chinese colleagues. As early as 2015, the Russian Ministry of Communications and Mass Media published a report on a joint meeting of the Subcommittee on Communications and Information Technologies of the Russian-Chinese Commission. According to the website, “the meeting participants discussed issues of cooperation in the field of telecommunications, information technology and network security” (Digital.gov.ru, September 18, 2015).
In June 2019, the Kremlin’s website posted a document titled, “Joint Declaration of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.” Among the measures for expanding cooperation in the field of security, the document calls for strengthening “exchanges in the field of international information security,” in particular, management of the Internet (Kremlin.ru, June 5, 2019). Soon after signing the statement, the director of the Federal Communications, Information Technology and Mass Communications Oversight Service (Roskomnadzor) met with the head of the Chinese Cyber Security Office. According to the official press release, they “discussed issues of bilateral cooperation in the application of state regulation in the field of information and communication technologies” (Rkn.gov.ru, July 17, 2019).
Russian authorities justify all these measures by the need to defend against “cyber warfare.” On the one hand, there is some truth in such statements. The problem of cyberattacks does exist and is aggravated by the lack of international regulation in this area and the difficulty of proving the guilt of a particular state. Moreover, according to estimates not only of the United States, but also of Germany and other countries, it is Russia that displays aggression in cyberspace (Golos Ameriki, September 8); and given that the United States has already repeatedly announced retaliatory attacks, the risk of damage to critical Russian infrastructure and subsequent escalation is real.
However, under the pretext of this threat, the Russian authorities demand control not only over critical infrastructure but over the entire Internet space, including news content and social networks (YouTube, September 6). In a similar fashion, the topic of “information war” serves to justify the destruction of journalism as such and reduces it to propaganda, in which journalists are referred to as nothing less than “soldiers of the information corps” (YouTube, August 4). Such a formulation of the question not only serves to justify repression but also calls for strengthening it, for example, to initiate criminal cases of treason against journalists (YouTube, August 21). To judge from the aggressiveness of Russian propaganda, censorship and repression in the information space will only intensify.