Russian FSB to Give NSA Lesson in Digital Surveillance at Winter Olympics

Olympic arena under construction in Sochi, Russia in preparation for Winter Games starting Feb. 2014.

The Winter Olympic games in the Russian city of Sochi promises to be a blast from the (Soviet) past with a dash of NSA-style surveillance thrown in, according to reports hinting that Russian security services will run a surveillance network so comprehensive that one analyst described the plan as “PRISM on steroids.”

The Russian FSB security service – successor to the Soviet KGB – is updating its already comprehensive “Sorm” Internet- and telephone-monitoring system. The new edition will have new interception and content-recognition capabilities that will allow it to monitor any phone- or data traffic from the vicinity of the games, and to recognize and track the use of specific words or phrases included in emails, chats or social media postings, according to a team of Russian investigative reporters whose results were reported Oct. 6 in the U.K. newspapers The Guardian and Telegraph.

The two journalists, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, collected information on the upgrade from requests for proposals, project specifications, offer letters, descriptions from Russian-government oversight agencies and other documents describing the project.

The Sorm network is being upgraded nationwide, but the region surrounding the Black-Sea resort city of Sochi has priority status for work to increase the network’s local capacity and to add abilities such as deep packet inspection that would allow FSB or other agencies to filter Internet traffic by keyword or other content.

Mention of the word “Novalny” could trigger extra scrutiny on the assumption that discussion revolves around Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalni, Soldatov told the Guardian.

“There is an element of meta-data gathering [as in the NSA’s PRISM surveillance], but Russian security services are not so interested in meta-data,” Soldatov told The Telegraph. “This is about content. The idea seems to be to make communications in Sochi totally transparent for the Russian authorities.”

The scope of the Sorm upgrades is similar to the PRISM system used by the NSA but more reliable, according to Univ. Toronto political-science Professor Ron Deibert, director of the university’s Citizens Lab, which researches surveillance, human rights and global security., who acted as consultant for the investigation.

The NSA’s PRISM surveillance system had checks and limitations built in to help prevent abuse, though they were weak or easily bypassed, Deibert said.

“In the Russian system permanent access for Sorm is a requirement of building the infrastructure,” he told the Guardian.

Long before the Sorm upgrades came to light, the U.S. Department of State recognized Russian eavesdropping as a big enough problem to issue an official warning to a warning to those traveling to the Games that Russian security is likely to eavesdrop on electronic communications.

“Business travelers should be particularly aware that trade secrets, negotiating positions, and other sensitive information may be taken and shared with competitors, counterparts, and/or Russian regulatory and legal entities,” the document reads.

Sorm was authorized in 1995 and went into operation in 2000, according to State Dept. travel guides.

The FSB has been upgrading the system since 2010, including the Sorm access-points that ISPs are required to install to allow government surveillance of Internet traffic.

The FSB is the Russian Federation successor to the Soviet KGB secret police, which employed once-and-current Russian President Shirtless Vlad Putin for 17 years as a mid-level administrator and spymaster, according to a Jan. 30, 2000 story in the Washington Post.

Like the NSA, the FSB, “technically requires a warrant to intercept a communication, [but] is not obliged to show it to anyone,” according to the Guardian.

Both the FSB and Russian-government spokesman Alexei Lavrischev declined to confirm the reports, but Lavrischev said surveillance at the Sochi games would be less intrusive than that by extensive network of security cameras in London during 2012 summer Games.

“There, they even put CCTV cameras in, excuse me for saying it, the toilets,” Lavrishchev told the Guardian. “We are not taking this kind of measure.”

Image:Shutterstock.com/ Martynova Anna

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