In south-west Moscow in a 19-storey grey and white high rise block lies the heart of the Russian internet.
Known as MSK-IX, it’s the oldest and biggest information exchange in the country, and has been located here since the mid-1990s. Today, almost half of Russia’s internet traffic passes through its doors.
Amongst the servers, entangled by yellow and grey fibre optic cables, are boxes marked “SORM” – System of Operative Search Measures. These small boxes are essentially backdoors onto the internet, allowing the FSB (the Russian security service) to intercept all the traffic passing through.
SORM, which was initially developed to monitor traditional phone lines in the late 1980s, has been constantly updated, first to intercept mobile calls and now to monitor the internet.
The FSB has also installed SORM boxes in the buildings of every Russian internet service provider in the country, to catch the traffic that doesn’t come through the capital – making the programme one of the most ambitious and intrusive in the world.
As a result, Russian activists, journalists, opposition leaders and NGOs prefer to use internet services located beyond Russia’s borders – namely Gmail, Facebook and Twitter – in an attempt to keep their communications out of reach.
But the Kremlin has put an end to this: in July 2014, Moscow adopted a law prohibiting the storage of personal data anywhere but on Russian soil.
The law was supposed to be enforced in September, but in late August the Russian authorities said that they would not check for compliance until January 2016, rumoured to be because they weren’t certain that any companies would obey.
In September, Kommersant reported that Apple had rented space in Russia to house the data of Russian citizens. By October, Viber – a popular messaging app –also announced the relocation of some of its servers to Russia. Soon it was reported that Ebay, PayPal and Booking.com had decided to comply with the Kremlin’s demands too.
Yet during these months, the biggest players – Twitter, Google and Facebook – have stayed silent, at the same time allegedly sending high level representatives to host private talks with the Kremlin.
A lot at stake
If these three biggest companies open their doors to Russia’s security services they will lose control over their information, and it will seriously devalue the “global government request reports” used to track who is asking Facebook and others for information about their users.
If they give in to Russian demands the FSB will be able to help itself to whatever they want.
Another concern is that they will be able to get their hands on the technology companies are using to protect and encrypt communications.
If they comply, activists may be forced to migrate to other platforms, in the same many were forced to abandon Skype after it was bought by Microsoft – who were fully cooperating with the Russian government.
On 7 December, desperate users, worried about their privacy, launched a petition on Change.org addressed to the global internet companies, pleading with them: “Don’t move our personal data to Russia”.
“The Russian government is putting pressure onto internet companies to move the personal data of their users to Russia. We’re urging them not to do so” reads the petition. “We don’t trust the domestic security services that are in charge of data security.”
The petition, launched by Leonid Volkov, opposition journalist Alexei Navalny’s right-hand man, is meant to force internet giants to explain themselves.
It is gaining traction, over 30,000 people have signed it, but we are yet to hear a word back from the big players. Will they protect our privacy, or not?
Published in The Guardian, 15 December 2015