It’s been seven years since WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange threatened to drop an information bombshell on the Kremlin that would show Russians the inner workings of their government and business world.
That threat never materialized, though a handful of fairly tame Russia-related documents were published.
WikiLeaks went on to publish hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables and, more recently, a huge trove of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. That appearance of lopsidedness has led some to accuse WikiLeaks of being in the Kremlin’s pocket, and CIA director Mike Pompeo to denounce the group as “a hostile intelligence service.”
But Russia might now be back in WikiLeaks’ sights.
This week WikiLeaks uncovered Spy Files, the first of what it says will be a revealing series of document dumps on the nature and workings of Russia’s surveillance state. Most of what is contained in the 34 base documents from Peter-Service, a private St. Petersburg digital company that provides “solutions” for Russian telecom giants and state agencies, has long been known and appears to be within the framework of Russia’s fairly draconian national security legislation.
Still, it represents a significant departure for WikiLeaks, and experts say it casts a timely spotlight on the vast surveillance operations mounted by Russian security services.
“It’s mostly technical stuff. It doesn’t contain any state contracts, or even a single mention of the FSB [security service], but there is some data here that’s worth publishing,” says Andrei Soldatov, co-author of “The Red Web,” a history of the Soviet and Russian internet. “Anything that gets people talking about Russia’s capabilities and actions in this area should be seen as a positive development.”
Russia’s new cyberscape
According to WikiLeaks, Peter-Service was founded as a billing service in 1992. But it has since grown into a major provider of software and equipment that includes exotic gear for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. “The technologies developed and deployed by Peter-Service today go far beyond the classical billing process and extend into the realms of surveillance and control,” WikiLeaks wrote. “Although compliance to the strict surveillance laws is mandatory in Russia, rather than being forced to comply Peter-Service appears to be quite actively pursuing partnership and commercial opportunities with the state intelligence apparatus.”
The documents shed some light on SORM, the technical infrastructure used by security services to keep tabs on electronic communications and internet traffic, and to store masses of data for future reference.
Russia has been investing heavily in a vision of cyber-democracy that will link the public directly with government officials in an effort to increase feedback and official responsiveness. But it is also enforcing some of the toughest enabling laws, to grant law enforcement access to just about any communications, require companies to maintain all data on Russian citizens on servers within the country, and to ban use of encryption technologies or services such as VPNs that could be used to evade surveillance.
The so-called Yarovaya Law, which vastly expands the powers of security services, now allows authorities to monitor and even ban almost any organization deemed to be “extremist,” including groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In line with public attitudes in most countries, 58 percent of Russians said they don’t think the government should have access to their private communications, according to a survey done last year by the state-funded Public Opinion Foundation. Twenty-five percent said such state surveillance was permissible to fight terrorism and crime.
One of the documents published by WikiLeaks is a slide show produced by Peter-Service which appears to be a market promotional for its services. The video has been in the public domain for some time, WikiLeaks admits.
“That slide show provides a very good illustration of the mindset of these people,” says Mr. Soldatov. “It’s quite eye-opening. The tone of it is ‘we are under attack, and we can’t let the Anglo-Saxons win this war. Our enemies are Facebook and Google. We need to promote national operators and solutions to protect ourselves.’ They are openly discussing the need to control all national communications.”
The company at the center of this storm has denied doing anything illegal. But most large Russian media outlets have yet to cover the story.
“Everyone is getting caught up in this information war, and we already knew that WikiLeaks is no white knight,” says Sergei Strokan, international affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Komersant. “Russian authorities might best ignore this. It’s unlikely they will want to respond, and might just hope it will go away.”