A diagram of the SORM surveillance system. Illustration: MFI-Soft
A joint investigation by Agentura.Ru, CitizenLab and Privacy International with the title “In Ex-Soviet States, Russian Spy Tech Still Watches You” was recently published in Wired magazine. It explains how the SORM surveillance system, initiated in the mid 1980s’, is still working not only in Russia, but also in former USSR states, like Ukraine and Belarus. It also explains why the SORM surveillance mechanisms are different than the mechanisms used by Western societies. It is definitely worth reading for those curious about the Surveillance Society. I am not extremely convinced that the difference between surveillance techniques associated with SORM and surveillance techniques associated with Western mechanisms is a consistent one, but perhaps it is just me.
On November 12, the Russian Supreme Court okayed the wiretapping of an opposition activist. The Court ruled that spying on Maxim Petlin, a regional opposition leader in Yekaterinburg, was lawful, since he had taken part in rallies where calls against extending the powers of Russia’s security services were heard. The court decided that these were demands for “extremist actions” and approved surveillance carried out by the national interception system, known as SORM.
Manned by the country’s main security service, the FSB, this ”System of Operative Search Measures” has been in use for more than two decades. But recently, SORM has been upgraded. It is ingesting new types of data. It is being used as Moscow’s main tool for spying on the country’s political protesters. And it has become extremely useful in the quest to make sure that the Kremlin’s influence in the former Soviet Union continues long into the second regime of Vladimir Putin.
Meet the New Boss
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the KGB’s regional branches became the security services of the newly independent states. But they didn’t stray far from the Kremlin’s lead. They modeled their governing laws after Moscow’s, and used similar technology, too. Namely, SORM — Russia’s nationwide system of automated and remote legal interception on all kinds of communications.
SORM’s tactical and technical foundations were developed by a KGB research institute in the mid-1980s. Initially SORM was installed on analogue telephone lines. As new technologies developed, SORM did, as well.
Today SORM-1 intercepts telephone traffic, including mobile networks, while SORM-2 is responsible for intercepting internet traffic, including VoIP. SORM-3 gathers information from all communication media, and offers long-term storage (three years), providing access to all data on subscribers. In addition, SORM enables the use of mobile control points, a laptop that can be plugged directly into communication hubs and immediately intercept and record the operator’s traffic.
SORM also proved essential to spy on social networks based in Russia. “We can use SORM to take stuff off their servers behind their backs,” an FSB official told us. According to figures published by Russia’s Supreme Court, over the last five years the number of legal telephone intercepts alone has almost doubled, from 265,937 intercepts and recordings of phone calls and e-mails to 466,152 in 2011.
Read the whole study HERE.