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Published in Stream:
Russia Update: April 20, 2016
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
National Anti-Terrorist Committee Mulls How to Take Over Encrypted Internet Traffic and Services Such as Firechat
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RBC reports that The National Anti-Terrorist Committee, a coordinating body of Russia's law-enforcement and government chaired by the Federal Security Service (FSB) director Aleksandr Bortnikov, has created a working group to discuss regulation of encrypted Internet traffic according to Aleksandr Zharov, head of Roskomnadzor, the state censor.

Zharov is chairing the working group which was also joined by heads of all the siloviki (force ministries), the Ministry of Economic Development, the Ministry of Communications and experts from the Russian Association of Electronic Communications (RAEK).

The group has been in talks since February 2016 under the aegis of the Russian Security Council and is to present a report by July 1 of this year on its findings, said Vadim Ampelovsky, head of Roskomnadzor.

Karen Kazaryan, the chief analyst for RAEK, said encrypted traffic makes up between 30-50% of all Russian Internet traffic, much of it through the https protocol, used by sites ranging from banks to Facebook.  

By contrast, Google experts say encrypted traffic worldwide is more than 75% and 81% in Russia. About 50% of the traffic through Russia's leading long-distance telephone provider is encrypted, said a representative of the state company. Back in February, Zharov had given a figure of 15% of traffic encrypted in 2015, which may increase to 20%.

It's hard to believe the FSB doesn't know more precisely just how much encrypted traffic there is, especially as in some political cases they have arrested people merely for using circumvention programs. Like the FBI, the FSB may not be able to penetrate strongly-encrypted traffic, but either they are being vague on the percentages of such traffic in general for security reasons or they really have trouble defining and quantifying it. Said Zharov (translation by The Interpreter):

"The reference is to encrypted traffic whose role is growing, about traffic compression, both legal, which is applied in browsers and other programs [as well as illegal] in other home-made methods of circumventing blocks -- proxy-servers, anonymizers and so on."
He said the "introduction of a unified system of encryption" was being discussed "so as to understand what is happening inside encrypted traffic."

The group's participants say this can be done "with various encryption methods which are applied -- to certify them, license them, and restrict the number of encryption schemes."

In tackling this issue, the Russian government will have to address end-to-end encryption programs that in fact emerged from their own technology milieu, like Telegram, a messaging system created by Pavel Durov, a Russian citizen who founded the most popular social network, VKontakte, but then fled Russia after selling his shares. He complained about state demands on him to turn over users data such as from Ukrainian and Russian opposition groups.

In April, another mobile phone app popular in Russia, WhatsApp, founded by Jan Koum, an emigre from Soviet Ukraine, and American Brian Acton, turned on encryption for a billion users.

The Russian FSB, in collusion with Russian telecoms and state TV, frequently hack opposition figures' communications and then attempt to discredit and embarrass them in national media. Recently opposition Parnas leader Mikhail Kasyanov and federal council member Natalya Pelevina found their intimate meetings and talks in a special feature on NTV, then their party's site was hacked and Parnas' email and Whatsapp communications were reportedly leaked. It is not clear how Whatsapp was accessed.

Durov as well as the makers of Whatsapp have come under criticism for making it possible for terrorists such as in the Paris and Brussels bombings to communicate beyond the reach of law-enforcement. In the US, court battles were fought over the FBI's right to examine the iPhone of the San Bernadino terrorists; ultimately the FBI dropped its demand on Apple and hired an Israeli firm to hack the iPhone, although they continue to demand access other phones in other cases. 

In the US and Europe, privacy and rights campaigners as well as the court systems in some instances have contested law-enforcement demands citing privacy and freedom of speech concerns; in Russia, such activists are few in number and they don't have IT professionals and industry associations like RAEK -- which is in the working group -- on their side.

Aleksandr Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, whose independence has increasingly been challenged, has organized meetings between Russian officials and Internet business people to make the point that a free and unrestricted Internet is good for business, not just democracy. But President Vladimir Putin meets personally with such figures as well, and they depend on him for their very survival. When Putin criticized Yandex, the Russian search engine, for having a foreign board member and implied the global Internet was "controlled by the CIA," Yandex's shares fell dramatically by the billions.

It will be interesting to see how Russia solves this problem both legally and technically, but it's important to remember the Kremlin already has all ISPs required by law to submit to filtration by SORM, the FSB program to monitor Internet traffic, and to retain and turn over customer data on demand. 

A law passed last year also imposes a demand on foreign providers like Google, Facebook and Twitter to place their servers with Russian customer data on Russian soil, ostensibly to protect citizens' privacy. These providers have at times refused to cooperate with Russian authorities to monitor or shut down users, but it is not clear yet how this will be addressed.

Zharov maintained that technology "analogous to DPI [deep packet inspection] used by providers" would soon appear on the market to address the impenetrability of encrypted traffic for Russian officials. He said a "major German company" had already designed a method to segment encrypted traffic and had even demonstrated it to the Russian working group, but Zharov declined to provide the company's name, citing "commercial secrecy."

Fugitive NSA hacker Edward Snowden, the world's leading campaigner for encryption and against government intrusion, has not commented on the Russian plans, but then he depends on Russia for asylum.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick