Government surveillance is not a new idea, but it is fast becoming a dangerously accepted norm. In June 2016, Vladimir Putin passed a series of cyber measures nicknamed Yarovaya’s laws. These laws require telecom companies to store user data for six months with users’ metadata having to be stored for three years. If the Russian government asks for an individual’s data, the telecom company must comply, even if it means unlocking encrypted data.
When the public is told that these cybersecurity measures are for their own protection, they are given a choice: they can either comply with the new law, implemented to keep them safe from harm, or they can try and fight it, endangering themselves and those around them. Legislation has since passed that gives the Kremlin complete authority over its citizens use of the internet. The Kremlin now controls “the exchange points, domain names and cross-border fiber-optic cables that make up the architecture of the internet.”
If this sounds like it has all of the hallmarks of a dystopian novel, that’s because it does. Putin is not enacting Yarovaya’s laws to protect the Russian people, he is doing it to protect himself and his government.
The Great Firewall
Putin has admired China’s “Great Firewall” for its surveillance and censorship efforts for some time.
China’s Great Firewall, as discussed by Lu Wei, a member of China’s Communist Party and the Party’s former Internet Czar, has “struck the correct balance between ‘freedom and order’ and between ‘openness and autonomy.’ It is traveling on a path of ‘cyber-governance with Chinese characteristics.'”
The Great Firewall acts as a cyber surveillance system on a massive scale, and so far, has had much success. If not granted explicit permission, Chinese civilians cannot access parts of the web. Seems a little far-fetched, doesn’t it? How can a government have such tight control? China’s government is doing it, and it’s doing it well. Websites like Buzzfeed and Tumblr are not available, nor is the New York Times or Fox News for that matter. The BBC however, is accessible from mainland China.
A Dangerous Game
Social media and the internet at large has helped political and social activists to communicate with each other, spread awareness and engage in protest. If like-minded individuals are permitted to find each other online and organize, Putin fears his tenure as the country’s leader could come to an end.
In April, China and Russia met in their first cybersecurity forum. Lu Wei and Fang Binxing (said to be the Great Firewall’s creator) met with Putin’s assistant on internet issues, Igor Shchyogolev. Wanting to tighten control on internet usage, the Kremlin worked with the Communist Party to implement a system like China’s Great Firewall. Russia’s version of the firewall has already begun to gain traction, with Russia’s communications regulator blocking all public access to LinkedIn. What was the reason LinkedIn was blocked? “It violated a 2015 law that requires Internet companies to store users’ personal data on servers located in Russia.”
We have policies like cyber liability insurance coverage specifically to protect us from people who would seek to get out data and use it for their own means. Civilians in Russia and China don’t have that: their own governments are working to suppress their access and original thought.
The curious findings in all of this is that a poll conducted by the independent polling firm Levada Center found that 60 percent of Russians supposedly believe that internet censorship is essential, at least so far as in banning particular websites. 51 percent of poll respondents remain unconvinced that the internet offers more news than radio, television or print news. 56 percent said they ‘fully’ or ‘mostly’ trusted Russian news. What’s important to remember here is, is that the Russian news media is heavily controlled by the government. So are Russian citizens getting news or propagandistic messages?