Russia: Why Skype Worries The FSB?

While Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urges government officials to get hip to technology, the FSB (Russia’s Security Service) has begun to clamp down on officials’ use of email and Skype to stop – some argue – possible ‘leaks’ of governmental information.

Last week, the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta (NG) ran an article that the head of Sverdlovsk region, located in the Ural Mountains, had circulated a letter under the direction of the FSB prohibiting government agents from using Skype or free internet-based email for work purposes or during work hours.

The document, signed by Sergei Kozlov, head of staff of the Sverdlovsk regional government, states that government workers should take four precautions when using the Internet:

«1. Использовать только сертифицированные в РФ программные продукты и аппаратные комплексы. 2. Проводить консультации с компетентными органами при приобретении зарубежного программного обеспечения и аппаратуры. 3. Запретить использование сервисов бесплатной электронной почты, а также сервиса бесплатной интернет-телефонии Skype для служебной переписки и иных форм делового общения работников. 4. Обеспечить гарантированное закрытие корпоративных сетей при переходе на систему электронного документооборота, включая предотвращение возможности удаленного доступа к ним через сеть Интернет».

1. Use only those programs and hardware that are certified in the Russian Federation. 2. Consult with knowledgeable departments (in other words, security services – GV) when using foreign security programs and applications. 3. It is forbidden to use free electronic mail services, as well as Skype, free online calls service, for work correspondence, and other forms of work correspondence between colleagues. 4. To make sure of a closed corporate network before transitioning to an electronic document management system, including the remote access to the documents through the Internet.

In the posting, re-posting, and commenting after the NG story, Russian bloggers’ reactions ranged from “so what?” to “typical.”

After popular Russian blogger Oleg Kozyrev posted the news on his page, comments ranged from “This is a totally concrete and normal method of regulating those who work with secret information” to arguments that the FSB’s directive is illogical: “the traditional methods of communication (like average telephones) that are available and used by our officials – and are hundred times less protected than Skype and Gmail.”

"Chatter – Helps The Enemy" : A Soviet-era poster has new meaning, illustration by V.Korecki

Most bloggers, however, seemed to agree that the ban was directly connected to the WikiLeaks documents published a few months ago.

Blogger Texas-88 headlined his re-posting: “In fear of WikiLeaks, officials ban Gmail and Skype,” and shimkozavrik agreed with the NG article that this is the government’s attempt to ward off the possible information leaks.

So far, the directive seems to have only been sent around to officials in Sverdlovsk region. But limiting officials’ use of technology seems at odds with the Kremlin’s, and specifically Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s urging that government officials start websites, blogs, and open Twitter accounts. The President has created an image of himself as somewhat of a techno-buff, welcoming foreign officials – like California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – to Russia via Twitter.

It seems that technology as a new political frontier has not been fully embraced by members of United Russia – Medvedev’s party. Aleksei Chadayev, head of United Russia’s political department, has said that politicians shouldn’t have blogs because it “makes them look like they are simple, like every one else.”

Chadaev backed up his statement with a quote from Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” that, “that power rests on three pillars – wonder, mystery, and authority.” In his opinion, United Russian members who have blogs are proving that they “are simple people, like every one else,” and weakening the authority of  the current government.

One explanation, put forward by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, as well as blogger Oleg Kozyrev, is that the past few months WikiLeaks-fueled state drama has Russian security agents panicked that government officials will leak state documents, private meetings, etc., or that roving hackers will be able to access private government conversations.

The idea of a Russian Julian Assange hacking into Skype conversations seems unlikely since Skype calls are supported on a peer-to-peer, closed-source protocol – meaning the software’s code is not public, so users or server administrators cannot view, analyze, or edit the program’s code – making hacking Skype conversations or duplicating the Skype software notoriously difficult.

Though maybe, as an unnamed source told Russian popular daily Kommersant, the FSB is fearful of Skype, not because outsiders could hack into shared government files, but specifically because Russian intelligence agency themselves cannot monitor conversation that happen over Skype. It's possible that the FSB’s monitoring of internal conversation among regional officials has been complicated by the introduction of new platforms for communication, like Skype and Google chat. Without the ability to monitor conversations, the FSB loses the ability to understand and control what is going throughout Russia, which would be a significant worry for the organization.

And Russia is by no means the first country to forbid government employees from using Skype for work communication – in 2005 the French government banned university administrators from calling their co-workers through Skype.

So, the Russian government and the FSB are just now coming around to worrying about the uncontrollable, un-monitor-able aspects of technology, which have been perplexing and aggravating western governments for years.

Kozyrev says the FSB:

Oказалась не готовой к технологическому рывку и вместо того, чтобы учиться, пошла по самому нелепому пути – пытается загнать всех в каменный век. Лишь потому, что сами фсбшники, видимо, с интернетом не в ладах.

It seems that [the FSB] was not prepared for this technological breakthrough, and instead of attempting to understand, has chosen the most ridiculous path – trying to pull [people] back to the stone age. Maybe only because FSB-ers are obviously at odds with the Internet.

Though is it possible that an additional goal could be to promote a domestic Skype-like service? One commenter on Kozyrev’s blog notes that there is an alternative to Skype, a VoIP (Voice over Internet Provider) called SIPNET. As opposed to Skype, SIPNET is based in Russia. Additionally, SIPNET is an open-source program, meaning the code is published and can be read and shared by users, companies, and governments, which may be the reason why SIPNET’s website pushes the new platform as a trans-Russia service – and, curiously, between Russia and China. (While Skype and other VoIPs still function in China, media outlets have been reporting recently that the government is debating banning such services.)

Or maybe, as a host of Russian publications assume, it is a WikiLeaks-spawned attempt to keep government documents and discussion within authorized circles.

One commenter on Kozyrev’s blog, “Opinion from Germany,” writes that he understands the Russian government’s decision.

Именно потому, что Skype является закрытой системой, и никому доподленно не известно, что делает эта программа. Для передачи рецептов между домохозяйками он вполне годиться, но не для комерческого или государственного документооборота!

Simply because Skype is a closed system, and no one is totally sure what the program does. It’s perfectly great for exchanging recipes between housewives, but not for commercial or state document exchange.

As Kommersant notes, the head of Yandex Mail, Russia’s largest search engine and one of the largest providers of free internet email in Russia, Anton Zabanny, doubts the Russian government can provide a comparable email service to officials, but says that losing a few government offices will have no effect on Yandex’s revenue.

While the detriment to workers may not be huge, it does seem confusing that the government would forgo a free and simple method of communication between offices – both city-wide and regionally – especially in a Russia, where is it often only slightly cheaper to call from Moscow to Irkutsk than to call the U.S.

While the directive has yet to be implemented, it seems like the Russian government has not yet to fully balance the pros and cons of technological freedom and make a uniform decision, it remains to be seen whether twittering officials or fearful security agents will be able to tip the scales to one side or the other.


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