Circling the Lion's Den

FSB: Not backing down over skype

Andrei Soldatov

The Deputy Head of the FSB Scientific and Technical Service, Alexander Andreechkins statement on the danger posed by the use of encryption systems in gmail, hotmail and Skype prompted a flood of comments from high placed officials. First came an anonymous comment from President Medvedevs administration, making it clear his own position superseded Andreechkins statement. Then came the Prime Ministers press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, backing the FSB official and supporting the FSB initiative. Then came a statement from the FSBs own Public Communication Center declaring that the agency had been misunderstood and that no one intended to ban anything.

For some reason, this final statement led many people to decide that the issue had been resolved: an FSB official simply made a somewhat extreme statement, the Presidents Administration had taken them down a peg or two, the FSB then distanced itself from the claim. The only area still causing confusion being Peskovs statement, which provided new grounds for speculation about friction in the tandem.

In reality, no one took anyone down a peg or two and the FSB in no way changed the position which it formulated back in the 1990s.

The issue is essentially a simple one: in Russia the use of programmes or products, any forms of communication, which do not have a back door the FSB can use in investigative operational activity, (bugging and interception) is banned. The main tool by which pressure can be brought to bear on companies has long been and remains, the system of licensing and certification created first by FAPSI and then by the FSB.

You want to sell mobile phone services? Get a license: it obliges you to establish a SORM complex (system for operational investigative activities) the FSBs legal intercept system. You produce and trade in cryptographic defense? You too need a license which not only obliges you to create a first department (consisted of FSB security people) in your company, every single product you produce must also be certified by the FSB, and for that to happen, you need to share your codes and technology with them.

This approach worked so long as the secret services were dealing with a communications market dominated by entities that had developed out of the Soviet system of communications holdings, which traditionally placed a high priority on the secret services interests.

Foreign producers, who saw the Russian market as important, also opted for cooperation: Microsoft in 2003 is a case in point. It shared its source code for its products with Russias secret services in exchange for access to the lucrative state procurement market.

Any company that was not willing to share its code would be threatened with having its access to the market barred: this is how the FSB dealt with Blackberry in 2005-7, demanding they allow access for investigative and operational activity (in the end MTS, which took charge of selling the smartphones, reached an agreement with the FSB)

The problem with gmail, skype and hotmail lies in the fact that these are free systems, there are no actual product sales, and it is far from clear how to force their owners Google, eBay and Microsoft respectively to share their technology with the FSB. Googles statement to the effect that they are willing to cooperate with, and to consider any requests made by the Russian secret services, are irrelevant here. The FSB definitely does not want to send out requests, they need permanent, remote, access to the system.

This is what Alexandr Andreechkin had in mind. Of course, he wasnt just telling a government commission the first thing that came into his head: he was expressing the secret services view on the matter. His section, the FSB Scientific and Technical Service, is responsible not only for purchasing computers for the Lubyanka, but for the scientific and technical policy of the federal security service as a whole. Dmitry Peskov has long been interested in Internet regulation in Russia, and shares a similar approach to the secret services, and hence it was only natural he would support them.

In continuing to follow the course set in the mid 1990s, the siloviki failed to factor in one crucial element: that Dmitry Medvedev, assiduously working to improve his image in Washington, has absolutely no interest in announcing any initiatives that negatively impact Internet freedom. Perhaps, the FSBs Scientific-Technical service should have borne in mind the importance Secretary of State Hillary Clinton places on advancing the cause of freedom on the world wide web.

In failing to do so, the siloviki, not for the first time, misjudged the situation: they and the Prime Minister ended up resembling alien creatures from a totalitarian past, while Dmitry Medvedev looked like a liberal and technologically advanced leader of a bright future.

In fact no one has any plans to alter the special services strategy, in their press statement, the FSBs Public Communications Center gently referred to the current situation under Russian law, which in fact enshrines these back doors in communications services. The Russian market is sufficiently important for all three corporations, that the FSB can confidently expect to reach agreement with Google, eBay, and Microsoft agreements that will allow them access to the encryption systems.

April 19, 2011. Published in Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 11, 2011