Novaya Gazeta [ENG] is considered to be the most liberal opposition newspaper in Russia. It is known for its famous investigations and independent coverage of major Russian news. After several of its journalists had been killed, the newspaper attracted attention far beyond Russia's borders. It continues to receive various threats regularly.
Sergey Sokolov, deputy executive editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of the newspaper's founders and head of its investigations department, shared with GV his perspectives on information security at an opposition newspaper, online democracy initiatives in Russia, and the latest news about the ongoing investigations into the journalists’ murders.
What kind of Internet attacks does Novaya Gazeta have to deal with?
The most unpleasant incident that Novaya Gazeta experienced was a powerful DDoS attack that took place in February 2010. Our website had to stop working for a week and a half. It started at 9 AM and, at first, we had a few hundred requests per second. We managed to solve this problem in 24 hours, and the website was restored. However, one hour later, our website crashed again, since we started to get more than one million requests per second. It made clear for us that we were not just an accidental target, but that it was an attack well prepared in advance. As we discovered, at the beginning the attacker used a relatively small [botnet, a network of robots or virus-infected computers]. When we neutralized the first attack, the attacker used another botnet, which was much bigger. As we know now, the source of the big botnet was in South Korea. Our official request to the police to investigate the attack had no results. Police officials asked us if we knew who the attacker was. When we said that we didn’t, they responded that in this case they had nothing to do with it. Only some time later, when a few other media organizations that experienced DDoS attacks, including Vedomosti, Kommersant and Moskovskiy Komsomolets newspapers, submitted a letter with a request to investigate these attacks to the president during his meeting with executive editors, the Federal Security Service (FSB) launched an investigation. As far as I know, it continues still and the investigators are trying to find something.
Do you know who was behind these attacks?
As far as I know, using a powerful botnet is pretty expensive. I don’t think that these were the people from businesses companies, since we had no stories at that time that could threaten commercial interests. So we can make a conclusion that this was a political action, due to the general position of our newspaper and due to the fact that this attack was one in a series of DDoS attacks against the Russian liberal media. Since some Kremlin-backed youth organizations, already known for their involvement in this kind of attacks, e.g. [the DDoS attack against Estonia], we assume that our intruders were from the same place. Since we were not the first target, I think that there is some general plan as to how to use the budget that the youth organization receives for these purposes, within the general plan of struggle against the so-called “orange threat” [a threat of a so-called Orange Revolution].
What was the impact of this attack on the newspaper, and how did you manage the situation during the attack?
Obviously, it caused us some problems, not only in regard to content publishing but also to other resources. We used LiveJournal to publish our main articles. Our media partners also helped us by publishing some of our content and also by linking to our blog. Generally, the attack had no impact on the number of visitors, since we have a very stable readership. Plus, our newspaper is not a commercial organization, and we don’t have much advertising, so the financial loss wasn't significant. Moreover, it did not hurt out image. Quite the opposite, the attack probably raised our rating among our audience. But it was an unpleasant situation that cost us lots of nerves, time and effort.
What are the other Internet and electronic threats that your newspaper experienced?
The first incident took place in 1999. Someone deleted the whole newspaper issue via remote access and, consequently, we couldn’t print the newspaper on time. About a year ago, our website was contaminated by a virus and everyone who visited our website automatically got infected. This type of provocation is much more painful for us and our audience than a DDoS attack, and we certainly will do anything to avoid it in the future.
Our major problem is spyware that compromises our editorial process. I can’t be sure it is taking place, but we had a few situations when the subjects of our investigations received information about upcoming articles and called us in this regard. Another problem is security of e-mail exchange. We have an internal e-mail service and we almost trust it. But when journalists conduct external communication and use e-mail platforms (e.g. Yandex), we can't be sure these e-mails aren't read by someone else. We recommend to use Gmail, or Skype, or [PGP] for communication.
What is you prognosis about future threats?
Technology is developing and the risks are increasing. We should be prepared for it. As we get closer to the parliamentary and presidential elections, the number of incidents not only with our newspaper, but with the other mass media, increases. Opposition websites are likely to be blocked. I wouldn’t say there is going to be a cyber war, but in the time of political escalation, the motivation to block independent information sources will be higher.
Some people say that the Russian security organizations don't have enough capabilities to make this kind of online operations. Is it true?
As far as I know, there are enough people with serious IT capabilities, primarily in the FSB and FSO [an analogue of the U.S. Secret Service]. Russian police are still in a stone age in this field. But when we talk about the Russian security services, we should take into account that there is a huge difference between their capabilities and what they actually do. The main duty of these services is to earn money on the side, therefore they won’t initiate anything against the mass media since it won't bring money. They primarily do commercial espionage for different organizations. But if they have a concrete order to do something, they might be very efficient.
Do you see any other types of threats for Internet journalism in Russia besides the technical ones? For instance, new legal initiatives?
The Russian government has a very “efficient” policy. It has decided it shouldn’t be spending money on expensive filtering solutions as a way to restrict the online media. In the Russian case, it's not about fighting the content, but rather about fighting those who create this content. The Russian law already has some updates for this purpose. A standard scenario involves prosecution of a blogger for some ‘extremist’ comment against a particular social group (a true story – police officers are also recognized as a social group).
Unlike bloggers, the mass media have an experience of being prosecuted. This is why they control what they publish. In this situation, the most vulnerable point of any online medium is its forum, where any kind of comment can appear, including “unlawful” comments. This vulnerable point has been discovered by the authorities and [the parliament] is now working on a draft bill that would make the online media responsible for third-party comments. Even some of the liberal media experts support this law, but no one has made an analysis of its potential economic impact. If big newspapers can afford additional forum moderators, the regional media probably won’t have the resources for it. In this case, the rising popularity of a particular online media outlet will lead to an increase of the risks of immediate closure and an increase in financial spendings. And if, according to the law, the media are responsible, no one will look for a commenter, which gives freedom for all sorts of [trolls] and Internet hooligans. It’s clear that this bill is a part of the pre-election preparations.
Just this week, the Russian Supreme Court has approved [ENG] a decision that exempts online media of any responsibility for third-party comments. It said that the authorities could require the removal of a particular comment, but the Russian media wouldn't be responsible just for the fact of its publication. Is it a progress that could actually neutralize the threat that you have described?
It's a very good decision of the Supreme Court, and it may cause the reconsideration of the legislators’ plans. However, there is one sensitive point here. The decision of the Supreme Court was made according to the current law, but if the new amendments for the law pass, it will create a new situation. In this case, the law will be changed and, consequently, the decision of the court will lose its power.
Let me ask you a few general questions. First, what is, in your opinion, the role of the Internet in Russia? Can it contribute to the empowerment of the liberal forces?
The social portrait of an Internet user in Russia is different from a European or an American Internet user. The Russian Internet community includes young people and professionals up to the age of 40-45 with income higher than average. In most of the cases, it is the most active segment of society, although very often these people might imagine that they live in a parallel state. The high degree of their independence means that they don’t expect any help from the state, but also don’t consider that they owe anything to the state. We can see that most oppositional activities move from the streets to the Internet space, where online communities emerge that share the same worldview and the same interpretations of events. It makes possible to organize initiatives that can’t be influenced neither by the government, nor by the opposition. The most powerful protest actions were initiated by the Internet audience, and politicians had just to “catch the leaving train.” These network communities have no formal leaders. They are able to lead a lot of active people out into the streets, and these people are not revolutionaries or marginals, but real people who fight for their rights. If we see the emergence of civic society in Russia, it will be based on Internet communication and online communities (e.g., automobile communities, movement against car emergency lighting, etc.).
I can’t finish our interview without asking something that is not related to the Internet. Novaya gazeta has experienced a few big tragedies over the past years. What is the current state of investigations into the murders of the newspaper’s journalists?
Let me address all the investigations one by one. On July 16, it will be ten years since the murder of [Igor Domnikov]. The killers are in prison and they got life sentences. But we are still struggling to launch an investigation into those who ordered this murder and those who mediated between the killers and those who ordered it. The second case – [Yuri Shchekochikhin]. The case was closed, despite a very serious investigation. In our opinion, it was closed due to formal justification, and we have all the reasons to demand the re-opening of this case, and we will do it this summer. The case of [Anna Politkovskaya] – the investigators, as far as I understand, are going to submit the case to the court. We can’t support it, since, in our opinion, many circumstances, including the main figures of this case, have not been exposed yet.
The case of [Stanislav Markelov] and [Anastasia Baburova]. I think that closer to the fall of 2010 the case will be submitted to the court, and there are the real defendants here. We still don’t know if there is anyone else who was responsible for this murder in addition to the two persons arrested, and if anyone had ordered this murder. I assume that part of this case will turn into an independent process. [Natalya Estemirova]'s case – looks like it's solved. But I think that de jure it will be very difficult to bring this case to court, since the murderers are unattainable for the Russian judicial system due to political reasons.
And what's your assessment of journalists’ safety in Russia?
Safety of journalists got significantly worse. It is a major problem for us now. The fact that murders and attacks of journalists remain unpunished creates an understanding among certain people that they can beat or kill journalists without taking responsibility. Therefore, now we have to prepare our journalists for any trip related to the authorities-related investigation as if they are going to a war zone.
Do you get threats through the Internet?
Definitely, the Internet is now being used as a medium for threats. We get them both through e-mails and forum comments. For instance, after the murder of Markelov and Baburova, we got an e-mail that claimed responsibility for this murder. We also recommend our journalists, especially those who are dealing with investigations, to reduce their activity in social networks and on other platforms, and make their accounts as closed as possible. We explain to them that it’s not only about their own security, but also about their families, friends and people they love.