[CrackMonkey] [firstname.lastname@example.org: <nettime> WSJ on SORM]
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Tue Nov 28 17:18:18 PST 2000
----- Forwarded message from Eveline Lubbers <evel at xs4all.nl> -----
To: nettime-l at bbs.thing.net
Date: Tue, 28 Nov 2000, 12:35:33 -0100
The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition --
November 27, 2000 Tech Center
Russian ISP Defends Privacy Rights, Challenges Government Snooping
By GUY CHAZAN
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
VOLGOGRAD, Russia -- Nail Murzakhanov would much rather talk
gigabytes than human rights. A self-confessed computer nut, he has
little time for politics. But that changes when you ask him about
spying on the Internet.
"Next thing they'll be asking for a spare set of keys to our
apartments," he fumes. "They want to control anyone, wherever and
whenever they want."
Despite his unassuming demeanor, Nail Murzakhanov is a folk hero in
Russian high-tech circles. As head of a tiny Internet-service
provider in this southern city, he was the first person ever to
challenge the government's right to eavesdrop on private e-mail
correspondence. Perhaps more impressive, the government backed down.
"They wanted me to let them snoop on people, without any outside
checks or controls," says the 34-year-old head of Bayard Slavia
Communications. "But I sign a confidentiality agreement with my
customers, and I won't violate that for anyone."
The object of Mr. Murzakhanov's wrath is the system for
operative-investigative measures, or SORM. Based on a 1995 law, it
gives Russian security services -- among them the FSB domestic
intelligence agency -- the right to tap phones, read postal
correspondence and intercept e-mail. Police say it's a vital weapon
in the fight against crime. Civil-rights campaigners say it's a
snooper's charter, the first step on the road to a Big Brother-style
SORM's supporters like to cite laws in the West, such as Britain's
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which sets down the rules
police must follow when they monitor e-mail and tap phones, or the
U.S. National Security Agency's Echelon project. Also in the U.S.,
the Federal Bureau of Investigation has had a hard time trying to
sell its controversial Carnivore Internet-surveillance software to
But SORM differs from RIP, Carnivore and Echelon in one crucial
respect. Russian law requires Internet service providers to
integrate surveillance equipment into their own systems -- and do so
at their own expense. Mr. Murzakhanov says the FSB told him he would
have to buy the SORM hardware and install cables connecting it to
the local FSB headquarters -- and train FSB personnel how to use it.
He says it would have cost up to $100,000 to set up -- enough to
drive him out of business.
The debate about SORM goes to the heart of liberals' fears about
President Vladimir Putin, a former spy who came to power last March
promising to create a "dictatorship of law." SORM wasn't his
initiative; nonetheless, liberals see it as symptomatic of an
administration in which former KGB officers are playing an
increasingly active role.
That's why the ministry's backing down in the Murzakhanov case is
viewed as significant by many in Net circles. If a small provincial
ISP -- with only 1,420 subscribers and a staff of six -- operating
out of the corner of a Volgograd electrical goods shop can fight
SORM, then maybe others can, too. "It shows you can challenge the
authorities and not only survive but win," says Anatoly Levenchuk,
head of Moscow-based human-rights group Liberatarium.
A summary of Russian state actions
Russia passed a law on "operative-investigative activity"
(SORM) in August 1995, giving the state the right, among
others, to control postal, telegraph and other communications,
wiretap phones and intercept information from technical
In July 2000, the Ministry of Communications issued order No.
130, stating that the technical means allowing for
operative-investigative measures must be installed at
electronic telephone exchanges, and at switching centers for
mobile and wireless communications and paging services.
In August 2000, the Ministry of Communications dropped all
claims against Bayard Slavia Communications and withdrew the
threat to revoke its license.
Under SORM's provisions, ISPs and telephone operators are mandated
to install a kind of black box that reroutes traffic to the
headquarters of local law-enforcement agencies, allowing them to
listen in on phone or e-mail conversation. Those that refuse can
lose their licenses.
In theory, the authorities require a court warrant to read a
criminal suspect's e-mail. But critics of SORM say judicial
oversight of Russia's security services is so weak that there's no
guarantee they'll always ask first -- especially if the information
they want is just a click away.
Police counter that without this kind of clout they're powerless to
deal with Russia's newest scourge -- high-tech crime. Russia's
hackers are gaining a reputation as perhaps the most talented in
cyberspace -- especially after Microsoft Corp. disclosed that
passwords used to access its source code had been sent to an e-mail
address in St. Petersburg. Low-tech, low-paid Russian policemen are
ill-equipped to deal with these problems.
Anatoly Stolbikhin, a police lieutenant-colonel and head of a
regional computer-crime department, says the ISPs are on their side.
"The kind of people we investigate are hackers illegally using other
people's passwords or credit-card details," he says. "These are
crimes that can severely damage a provider's commercial interests."
Mr. Murzakhanov says he was first asked to install SORM by the
Volgograd branch of the FSB domestic intelligence agency a month
after Bayard Slavia Communications began operations in January 1998.
He says he told the FSB that he would be quite happy to cooperate on
a case-by-case basis, and only if the FSB showed him a court order
confirming that a given subscriber was under criminal investigation.
He says the agents refused, and told him that they never tell anyone
whom they are investigating.
According to Mr. Murzakhanov, the FSB referred to Bayard Slavia's
license, which says a provider must assist law-enforcement agencies
in carrying out "operative-investigative measures". But Mr.
Murzakhanov says he cited another clause of the license that makes
any disclosure of a client's personal data a criminal act. He
refused to sign.
The authorities went on the offensive in April last year, switching
off Bayard Slavia's satellite dish, which forced it out of business
for two months, according to Mr. Murzakhanov. Then in November, the
Communications Ministry threatened to revoke his license unless he
complied with the FSB. The businessman responded by taking the
ministry to court.
A session of the Moscow Arbitration Court was scheduled for Aug. 21,
2000, but a week before it met, Mr. Murzakhanov received a letter
from the ministry saying it had dropped its claims against Bayard
Slavia and canceled its threat to withdraw the license.
"We realized that we just didn't have the necessary legislation in
place to proceed," said Sergei Grigorenko, a ministry spokesman. The
case was closed, and since then, Bayard Slavia has been left in
peace. Mr. Grigorenko didn't rule out the possibility of pursuing
the ministry's case against Bayard Slavia further once additional
laws have been passed.
Mr. Murzakhanov says the FSB is fooling itself if it really thinks
it can monitor all e-mail correspondence in Russia. "Internet
traffic is doubling every month," he says. "You need a hundred
highly qualified people, well-versed in cryptography, to monitor
just 10,000 subscribers."
But Liberatarium's Mr. Levenchuk expressed doubt that other
operators would follow Bayard Slavia's example. "Most people think
it's easier to give in to the state than oppose it," he says. "They
just want a quiet life."
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