Russian president Vladimir Putin had a surprise guest during his annual marathon press conference: former National Security Administration contractor, and distributor of millions of secret documents related to the spy agency’s programs, Edward Snowden.
“I’d like to ask you a question about mass surveillance of online communications and the bulk collection of private records by intelligence and law enforcement services,” Snowden began, appearing via pre-recorded question and speaking in English. The former contractor went on to cite recent decisions from the administration’s review panel and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that the NSA’s current systems of collection are overexpansive and can be pared down without impacting its effectiveness.
“I’ve seen little public discussion about Russia’s policies on mass surveillance,” he continued, “so I’d like to ask you: does Russia intercept, store, or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement can justify placing societies, rather than subjects, under surveillance?”
Putin quickly latched onto the question once it was translated into Russian for him. “Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent — a spy — I used to be working for an intelligence service, we are going to talk one professional language,” Putin said, referring to his previous career in the KGB. When Russian special forces and other intelligence agencies collect information from phone calls or follow someone online, the Russian president said, court permission is needed to stalk a particular person. “We don’t have a mass system of such interception,” Putin said.
“Of course we know that criminals and terrorists use technology for their criminal acts, and of course special services have to use technical means to respond to their crimes, including those of terrorist natures,” Putin hedged. “Of course we do some efforts like that, but we do not have a mass scale, uncontrollable efforts like that. I hope we don’t do that, and we don’t have as much money as they have in the States, and we don’t have these technical devices that they do in the States,” he joked, saying that the Russian special services remain completely under the law.
Watch the full exchange here:
Numerous reports lay doubt to Putin’s claims that the collection of information is much more narrowly tailored in Russia. In fall 2012, Russia put into place a system it claimed was to protect children from viewing pornography. The method it decided to enact that goal, however, was one not only puts into place a list of banned websites that could surpress political speech, but also has the ability to track the flow of information across Russian networks. “Logistically, this will require Russia’s [internet service providers] to maintain detailed records of user traffic and would allow the Russian government a potential backdoor into the private lives of Russia’s internet users,” ThinkProgress explained at the time of the network’s launch.
Last October, Reuters also reported that the Russian government was requiring internet service providers to “store all traffic temporarily and make it available to the top domestic intelligence agency.” Under the order drafted in the Communications Ministry, the FSB — the successor to the KGB — would have access for 12 hours to all stored data, “including phone numbers, IP addresses, account names, social network activity and e-mail addresses.” That order is due to take effect this July.
And just this year, Russian officials admit while defending hotels in Sochi built for the Winter Olympics that they were equipped with surveillance equipment that was closely watched. The entire proceedings in the Russian resort town were subject to a massive dragnet of surveillance as a system was put into place to monitor all communications that flowed in and out. This was done using the SORM system that Russia utilizes to listen in to phone conversations and read email threads, which according to Privacy International, “gathers information from all communication media, and offers long-term storage (three years), providing access to all user data.” SORM is deployed year-round and controlled by the FSB.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said he has been on the receiving end of the Russian surveillance program. As a government official, he was a prime target, he told NBC just prior to stepping down earlier this year, but Americans writ large are also subject to having their information spied upon, given Moscow’s espionage abilities. “As we remind all Americans that come to this country,” McFaul said, “the Russian government has tremendous capabilities, and legal by their law, of intercepting phone calls, emails, etc.”
Snowden has been living in Russia since being granted temporary asylum there last August, after first travelling to Hong Kong. It was in Hong Kong that Snowden first met with Glenn Greenwald and other members of the media to begin the process of divulging reams of classified information related to the mass collection of data in the United States and abroad. Since then, these revelations have produced fierce debate within the U.S. over the scope of the NSA’s programs and how vital they are to the security of the country.