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Surfing with the KGB. Big Brother covets all the E-mail

by Christian Caryl, U.S.News, 1998, September 14, Science
Believe it or not, there are some areas where Russia leads the world. While other countries from Germany to Singapore ponder the pluses and minuses of government regulation of the Internet, Russia is way ahead. Its State Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the KGB, is planning all-encompassing surveillance of Internet communications. Internet activists say that the proposed regulations are proof of just how far Russia's struggling democracy has to go.

14.09.1998

Believe it or not, there are some areas where Russia leads the world. While other countries from Germany to Singapore ponder the pluses and minuses of government regulation of the Internet, Russia is way ahead. Its State Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the KGB, is planning all-encompassing surveillance of Internet communications. Internet activists say that the proposed regulations are proof of just how far Russia's struggling democracy has to go. "There is no concept of privacy anywhere in Russian legislation," says Andrei Sebrant of GlasNet, one of the country's leading Internet service providers. "So strictly speaking, there's nothing at all illegal about this."

The plans, which have never been officially presented or acknowledged by the government, became public a few weeks ago, when they were leaked to critics. The idea is to force each service provider to install a "black box" connecting its network to the local FSB office via fiber-optic cable.

That would enable state-sponsored snoopers to collect and examine E-mail, as well as data on addressees and recipients and Web surfing habits. Users, meanwhile, would never have the slightest sign of prying eyes and ears.

The cost for the extra equipment would be borne by the providers themselves. Anatoli Levenchuk, an Internet expert who posted the proposed regulations on the Web and is leading the most vocal online protest, says that the requirements would boost providers' costs by 10 to 15 percent. That increase would be passed on to users, who already pay around $35 per month, very expensive by Russian standards. "Right now, we have about 1 million Internet users in Russia," says Levenchuk. "So those price hikes could immediately reduce the Internet community here by hundreds of thousands." Any providers who refuse to comply can expect to have their operating licenses yanked by the all-powerful Ministry of Communications, which has been helping the FSB draft the rules.

But the FSB's plans may ultimately serve to prove just how resistant to any kind of centralized control the Internet remains. The new proposal doesn't address encryption, and the drug dealers and terrorists the FSB ostensibly wants to catch will be the first to resort to tough-to-crack encryption systems. Russian Web sites offering encryption technology have been doing a booming business since the first news of the regulations came out. But most Russian Internet users have little familiarity with encryption techniques, according to Maksim Otstavnov, an editor at CompuTerra magazine. For them, this could be the electronic equivalent of the days when the Soviet KGB routinely tapped phones and opened mail.--Christian Caryl

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