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Russia: The Data Leak War and Other Pre-Election Surprises

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

The second half of October 2011, was marked in Russia by a significant increase in online political activity. To be more precise, current online political activity points to information warfare occurring between independent civil-society groups or remnants of ‘traditional’ political opposition, against various government officials and pro-government youth movements.

The pre-election situation online now reminds us of the offline situation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when competitive elections existed. Before the election dates all competing sides would try to spread as much compromising information against their rivals as possible.

Very often (although, not always) the information was true and revealed connections with mafia, bribery, etc, which meant that during the pre-election periods, Russian society had true ‘enlightening’ moments about their elites and rulers. The amount of ‘black hat’ (underhand) election techniques was one of the excuses to remove the competitive election system in the country in the mid-2000s.

The situation in 2011, that thanks to the Internet and especially YouTube, the amount of compromising materials is back. The difference, however, is that in the 90's people could choose someone else instead of an outspoken politician. Now, it hardly seems to be the case. Still, the netizens’ attempts to bring back electoral competition are overwhelming.

Mobile cameras and YouTube are major gamechangers in the Russian pre-election season 2011. Image by Shawn McClung on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Mobile cameras and YouTube are major gamechangers in the Russian pre-election season 2011. Image by Shawn McClung on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Private data leak war

The October 2011 leaks began with the publication of ruleaks.ru in the beginning of the month (see detailed GV analysis here).

The series of events subsequently dubbed as ‘the Data Leak War,’ however, started later. On October 23, Kseniya Sobchak, a celebrity journalist, shot a video of Vasiliy Yakemenko, the head of the Federal Agency for Youth and unspoken leader of the pro-Kremlin youth movement “Nashi,” in the most expensive restaurant in Moscow.

Criticism followed the video [ru] upload: according to his tax declaration [ru], Yakemenko could hardly afford to attend such a place.

Later Anna Biryukova, the Federal Agency's press-secretary, sent removal demands to a number of websites (Echo Moskvy [ru], and Metronews [ru]) threatening to sue them on the grounds of violation of Yakemenko's private life and image. Portals claimed Agency's threats had no legal base, since Yakemenko was spotted in a public place and is indeed a public figure.

A strike-back didn't take long to appear. On October 26, the contents of several private mailboxes belonging to Alexey Navalny, the famous anti-corruption blogger, and his wife, were published at navalnymail.kz by someone nicknamed onenavnav [ru] (the account was later suspended).

Hacker Hell, a German-based cyber-criminal (still not arrested) who has a reputation of hacking accounts of opposition activists, gave an interview [ru] claiming he hacked Navalny's mailbox in late summer. Then he transfered data to ‘friends’ that he refused to name. Hell's ‘friends’ had probably kept the data until the opportune moment presented.

Observers, however, could not find anything compromising in Navalny's letters, except fragments Navalny claimed had been ‘planted’ by the publisher of the leak; in one of the fragments someone offers Navalny US$ 50,000 to blackmouth one of the Russian oligarchs. Netizens, however, seem to support Navalny's version that these fragments were planted.

As popular blogger Leonid Kaganov pointed out [ru], if Navalny would agree to publish compromising materials against the oligarch, it could be hardly a minus for Navalny himself:

допустим, Навальный скомпрометирован. Допустим, точно выяснено, что он берет деньги за публикации компромата, торгует водкой и ездит в тонированном авто. Пусть даже неопровержимо выяснится, что он педофил, людоед и разжигатель торфяников. Но как это относится к тому компромату на чиновников, который он публикует, а никто не опровергает?

Suppose, Navalny's identity is compromised. Suppose, it is known for sure, that he receives money for publishing compromising materials, sells vodka and drives in a car with tinted windows. Even, if we undeniably prove that he's a pedophile, cannibal, and an incendiary of peat bogs [there are conspiracy theories that last year's wildfires were initiated by some arsonists]. But how does it relate to the compromising materials on authorities that he publishes, and no one denies?

In other words, Navalny once again proved his online dominance and successfully mitigated compromising attempts, by directly addressing the materials. This, however, did not end the leak war.

On October 27, the RuNet was struck with a massive leak [ru] of personal data belonging to 24,324 participants of the pro-Kremlin youth camp “Seliger 2011.” The .zip archive contained names, family names, dates of birth, e-mails, and telephone numbers of pro-Kremlin activists, as well as some ‘ratings’ – probably a system of internal evaluation of the activists.

After the exchange of hits, the RuNet stands still.

Damn YouTube!

At the same time, new information fronts are opening all across the country.

On October 24, an Omsk-based Russian policeman who was caught in July 2011 on camera [ru] cursing at his colleagues, was fired [ru] after the video (so far 280,000+ views) became public.

On October 25, in Sochi (the future venue of the Olympic Games) YouTube user belayalenta1 published a hidden recording of an interview [ru, en] with the city's Deputy Mayor Nikolay Yermolov, who was quite eloquent in sharing various techniques of discrimination of the civil society activists (the video has subtitles in English).

Three days later, almost 9,000 kilometers from Sochi, an anonymous male prison officer from the Amur region who had been captured beating and abusing female inmates was arrested [ru]. The arrest was conducted after the shocking video [Warning: graphic content] (146,500+ views) of prison violence was uploaded by YouTube user MrArtur113 in early October.

On October 27, Udmurtia.tv published a video [ru] (138,400+ views) of Denis Agashin, Izhevsk city manager, telling the representatives of veteran organizations that the next year's financial support would depend on the election results of the “United Russia” party in their district. On October 31, representatives of the party “Patriots of Russia” filed a complaint [ru] against Agashin calling the prosecutor to start a criminal investigation that might end with a five-year jail sentence.

The examples seem to multiply every hour. They exemplify, however, one thing: despite the manipulations, citizens seem to not only to mitigate online discrimination attempts but also be victorious in exposing the authorities.

As Alexander Kynev, a prominent political analyst, pointed out: “Progress it's not only forcing students to make pictures of their signed bulletins [to ensure ‘proper’ voting, a ‘popular’ use of the administrative resource by university deans], it is also a risk to be recorded.”

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

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