Russia seeking Snowden's help on data security

Russia's upper house of parliament is planning to ask former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to advise the country on improving Internet privacy and security.

Russia24 via Associated Press Television/AP
In this video still image taken Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 and made available Sunday Aug. 4, 2013, by Russia24 TV channel, US National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, third right, is shown as he leaves Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow with his Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, second right, on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013.

The upper house of Russia's parliament will invite ex-National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden to participate in a probe of how the privacy of Russian citizens is being violated by big Internet companies who, according to Mr. Snowden, allow the personal data of users of Facebook, Yahoo, Google, and other big global Internet companies to be accessed by a "third party."

Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia last week, may soon find himself acting as "Exhibit A" in a concerted Russian effort to beef up national electronic security and assert something lawmakers are calling "digital sovereignty" in the wake of the recent revelations about NSA Internet-snooping around the world.

"We want to find out from Snowden how this leaking of personal data happens. It's time to start working out measures to protect private information on the national and international level. I don't think he'll have to break any obligations or commitments to tell us what he knows," says Senator Ruslan Gattarov, head of the parliamentary commission on privacy rights. "We're not interested in relationships between governments or struggles between security agencies. We have no questions about what the NSA is getting up to. This is about the security of personal information; it concerns tens of millions of people in Russia and billions around the world," he adds.

Mr. Gattarov's commission is part of a larger effort, predating Snowden's appearance, to close Russia's cyber-gates and seal up its digital windows in an age when many illusions of online privacy are being systematically shattered. Supporters say tougher cyber self-defense is a basic issue of national security while critics worry that the Kremlin is just trying to get its hands on all the levers of Internet control for its own purposes.

"You might say that it's a good idea to have a parliamentary commission asking relevant questions (about online surveillance), but it's not as though these are particularly new questions," says Sergei Nikitin, the Russia director of Amnesty International, who participated in the airport conference last month where Snowden appealed to Russian human rights activists to help him obtain temporary refuge. "The problem is that these hearings, if they occur, will be one-sided. They'll hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest. And the role of Edward Snowden will be to tell them what they want to hear."

In June the deputy speaker of the State Duma, Sergei Zheleznyak, called for urgent measures to restore Russia's "digital sovereignty" after the first of Snowden's revelations. In his view that would entail compelling big Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Twitter to keep all the data of Russian users on servers based in Russia as a condition of being allowed to continue operating in the Russian market.

Many Russians, shocked by the sweeping nature of the NSA's spying, seem to agree that the country needs to take some steps to gain control over its own data.

"The idea of 'digital sovereignty' may be not good for the whole world, but it's inevitable for Russia and some other countries," says Yevgeny Yeremchenko, an expert with the Internet portal Neogeography.ru. "This idea is induced by the clumsy and rigid policy of the present American government that uses American industry as some kind of 'e-gunboat diplomacy.' It seems that 'digital sovereignty' is the only kind of sovereignty we can get in today's world; the best alternative, 'digital democracy' appears to be unobtainable due to lamentable recent developments."

Earlier this year Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new "cyber security doctrine" whose main thrust is that Russia must take urgent steps to defend itself against "informational weapons used for military-political, terrorist and criminal ends" as well as attempts to "intervene into other nations’ internal affairs" via the Internet.

As part of this doctrine, Russia joined China and a few other countries in pushing a radical proposal to take governance of the Internet away from the US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) at a meeting in Dubai of the 150 countries that belong to the International Telecommunications Union last December. 

That attempt failed, but Russia still advocates a more diffuse system to govern the Internet that would allow individual countries to control Internet addresses and other aspects of Internet infrastructure within their own territory. Critics point out that it could also enable individual governments to create a kind of "national Internet" and block undesirable content from the outside.

Russia's own security services operate a vast system of telephone and Internet surveillance, known as the System of Operative Search Measures (SORM). Like the NSA, it is only supposed to target individual data when security officers have obtained a court order, Mr. Putin told the English-language Russia Today network recently.

But Andrei Soldatov, editor of the online security journal Agentura.ru has argued that not only is SORM more intrusive than known NSA efforts, but it is also being deployed to actively spy on dissidents and anti-government protesters, with the gathered materials used to smear government critics.

Hence, perhaps, Russian human rights activists don't seem to be welcoming the idea of parliamentary hearings on cyber-snooping, or cheering the prospect of the freshly-minted Russian resident Edward Snowden participating in them.

"Russian authorities have been very assertive in talking about the privacy of Russian citizens, protecting Russian data and so on, but the bottom line is that they want to strengthen their control over the domestic Internet," says Mr. Nikitin.

"Nobody is expecting any positive developments from this," he adds

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