The Winter Olympics of Russia’s Discontent

Earlier this week, a team of investigative journalists in Russia compiled a dossier suggesting that the Russian government will be embarking on an ambitious surveillance regimen for the upcoming Winter Olympics, which will be held in Sochi, Russia, next February.

In this TechNewsWorld podcast, Andrei Soldatov, one of the journalists who helped break this story, joins us from Moscow.

Soldatov is the editor at Agentura.Ru, a Russian website that covers security and intelligence agencies, and the author of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB.

Soldatov talks about what, exactly, Russia has planned for the Games, how the 1980 Moscow Olympics still informs the nation’s surveillance philosophy, and more.

Following are some excerpts of the podcast. Editor’s Note: The “FSB,” which comes up throughout in the podcast, is Russia’s Federal Security Service.

Listen to the podcast (19:11 minutes).

TechNewsWorld: Let me start by asking you about a quote from Ron Deibert, who is the director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which is a group that cooperated with your research on the upcoming Winter Games. Deiber described Russia’s plans as, “Prism on steroids.” He was referring, of course, to the famous U.S. surveillance program run by the NSA. I’m curious if you would agree that what Russia is planning is Prism on steroids — and, if so, what you find so startling about this compared to other nation’s surveillance.

Andrei Soldatov: That’s a big question because you have to remember — perhaps I need to explain it to all your listeners — from the beginning, the Russian and Western approach to lawful interceptions were quite different. In Western Europe and in the United States, you need to obtain a court warrant, and the same thing is true for Russia. But in Russia, you don’t need to show this warrant to anybody except your senior officer in your security service. Internet service providers or telecom operators have no right to see this warrant, because they have no security clearance … .

Why we have the comparison to Prism, it seems to me, is that now the Western approach to communication interception became quite closer to the way the Russian system used to be five or six years [ago]. That’s why we can say this comparison between Prism and Sorm, which is the name of the Russian system for lawful interception, became more correct … .

TechNewsWorld: What do you think is the main rationale or the main justification behind this intensified surveillance? Is it to prevent protests? Is it to prevent people from talking bad about Russia? I mean, what is the motivation to have this sort of hard-core monitoring going on?

Soldatov: Well, actually it’s quite difficult to understand in its entirety, because they are quite secret and they don’t want to discuss these things a lot. For me, as a journalist, it’s very difficult for me to get any kind of comment from them.

But as far as I can understand from talking to people inside the security services, they’re inspired by the experience of the Soviet time Olympic Games, the Games which took place in 1980 in Moscow. If you remember, it was quite a specific kind of Olympic Games. It was boycotted by the United States and many Western countries because of the invasion of Afghanistan. But these particular Games, in 1980, were quite interesting because Moscow was completely cleaned up from any people who were deemed by the security services potentially dangerous. All troublemakers or would-be troublemakers were simply expelled from Moscow for the Olympic Games … .

This operation was conducted by the KGB. The problem is that now, 30 years after that, people inside the Russian secret services still think that this approach was very effective, and we need to do something similar to that. Of course, we cannot say it officially — that we just need to replicate the Soviet experience — but actually they mean exactly these things. So they try to organize these Games in this way so that everything will be under control … .

TechNewsWorld: Would you describe what Russia is planning to do more as surveillance or censorship? In other words, is Russia going to kind of sit back and collect information without acting on it? Or are they going to actively censor certain conversations or certain tweets, you know, kind of in the same way that perhaps China or other countries that try to block certain topics or certain keywords on social media — the way that they operate? What is the strategy as far as what they will do with all this extra information they have?

Soldatov: I think that it will be more about surveillance than censorship, because the idea for the security services here in Russia is to prevent things to happen — for example, to control communications to understand who planned something and then to try to disrupt these kind of activities. I think that will be the approach for the security services in this case.

Everybody understands that now, in the modern world, it would be quite difficult to censor. For example, if something happened during the Olympics, it would be impossible to block this information and to prevent this information from spreading. So I think the idea, the general idea, would be to prevent would-be troublemakers to get to the Olympics, and then to prevent people who made it to do something which might be considered by the security services as harmful or dangerous for the image of the Games.

David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author ofThe Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out hisECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.

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