Are black boxes a violation of privacy?

Internet censorship in RussiaNarrow scope for bloggers and journalists

Roman Sakharov challenged the Kremlin. In 2006, in a kind of David versus Goliath trial, the journalist filed a lawsuit against Russia with the European Court of Human Rights. He turned against the unprovoked telephone surveillance with the help of the Russian surveillance project SORM, the "System for Operational Investigative Activities". The judges awarded him damages in 2015, they saw his privacy violated.

"This decision was very important for me, my supporters and I, we drank champagne and were happy. The court had made it clear that there had to be a strict separation between the need for security and the privacy of the individual."

But the victory remained symbolic. On the day of the judgment, the Russian Duma passed a law according to which decisions of the Human Rights Court in Russia do not have to be automatically applied.

"Every citizen can now be spied on"

In recent years, the authorities have expanded surveillance to include the Internet, explains Irina Borogan, one of the best-known investigative journalists in her country.

"In the course of the SORM surveillance project, the Internet and telecommunications providers had to install so-called black boxes. And the Russian secret service FSB has access to these black boxes and can intercept and evaluate user data. This means that every citizen can now be spied on."

Scouting with borders

The secret services can see which websites the users visit, what they post, and they can also intercept email traffic. However, and this has so far been a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities: they do not have access to the data of foreign Internet companies such as Google, Facebook or Twitter.

"The information that Russian Internet users post on Facebook or Twitter or other global services are still safe because the providers' servers are located abroad. The Russian secret services can intercept the information, but they cannot read it because it are encrypted. "

For years the Kremlin has been trying to force the Internet giants to relocate their servers to Russia by law. But so far they have successfully refused.

Since 2012, stricter controls on the Internet

Unlike in China, where the Internet was strictly controlled from the start, the Internet in Russia was relatively free for years. A creative and thoroughly critical blogosphere developed over the years.

But that changed in 2012. After Russian demonstrators had organized large anti-Putin protests, mainly via social networks, the authorities tightened controls on the Internet with a large number of laws, explains Artem Kozljuk:

"In 2012 a so-called register was introduced, a kind of black list of websites that have to be blocked. Since then, content such as child pornography and drug trafficking can be blocked, but also so-called extremist content with the help of further laws."

Broadly interpreted term of extremism

Kosljuk's organization Roskomswoboda documents the extent of the closures. Over 100,000 websites would be listed in the register. Because entire Internet domains are also being targeted by the censors, he estimates the number of blocked sites at around four million. The authorities are now also taking action against individual users, says Irina Borogan.

"A man had already been sentenced to two years in prison for posting a picture of a tube of toothpaste on the Russian network 'VKontakte' that read: Push Russia out of you. The courts found that extremist. intimidate society. "

Nevertheless, the Internet cannot be completely controlled, says Irina Borogan with a mischievous smile. She cites an example from 2014. At that time, officials repeatedly denied that Russian soldiers had been stationed in Crimea. The Internet of all things made the version less and less credible. Because numerous soldiers posted photos of themselves with their units. Easy to see in the background: landscapes and details of places in the Crimea.