Russia's Surveillance State
In March 2013, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the U.S. State Department issued a warning for Americans wanting to come to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia next February: Beware of SORM. The System of Operative-Investigative Measures, or SORM, is Russia’s national system of lawful interception of all electronic utterances—an Orwellian network that jeopardizes privacy and the ability to use telecommunications to oppose the government. The U.S. warning ends with a list of “Travel Cyber Security Best Practices,” which, apart from the new technology, resembles the briefing instructions for a Cold War-era spy:
Consider traveling with “clean” electronic devices—if you do not need the device, do not take it. Otherwise, essential devices should have all personal identifying information and sensitive files removed or “sanitized.” Devices with wireless connection capabilities should have the Wi-Fi turned off at all times. Do not check business or personal electronic devices with your luggage at the airport. … Do not connect to local ISPs at cafes, coffee shops, hotels, airports, or other local venues. … Change all your passwords before and after your trip. … Be sure to remove the battery from your Smartphone when not in use. Technology is commercially available that can geo-track your location and activate the microphone on your phone. Assume any electronic device you take can be exploited. … If you must utilize a phone during travel consider using a “burn phone” that uses a SIM card purchased locally with cash. Sanitize sensitive conversations as necessary.
The list of recommendations ends with the advice to discard the user’s phone and SIM card before returning. The instruction might seem like overreaction, but far from it. Anyone who wants to attend the Olympics needs a Spectator pass, which requires registering on the official Sochi 2014 site, a procedure that includes taking a photo. What is curious is that when clicking to take a photo, a MacBook immediately warns the user that the site “is requesting access to your camera and microphone. If you click Allow, you may be recorded.”
But the Russian surveillance effort is not limited to the Sochi area, nor confined to foreigners. For years, Russian secret services have been busy tightening their hold over Internet users in their country, and now they’re helping their counterparts in the rest of the former Soviet Union do the same. In the future, Russia may even succeed in splintering the web, breaking off from the global Internet a Russian intranet that’s easier for it to control.