Russia’s Internet Censor is Also a Surveillance Machine
As the Putin regime continues its war on Ukraine, the Kremlin has almost totally repressed the speech, assembly, and press environment in Russia. A little-known Russian agency: Roskomnadzor, the country’s internet and media regulator and, therefore, internet and media censor has been central to this effort.
Roskomnadzor has played a central role in slowly increasing the Putin regime’s control over the internet in Russia, from managing a website blocklist with over 1.2 million URLs to sending numerous censorship orders to companies like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Google Search, YouTube, and Pinterest. But a recent New York Times investigation, reporting on thousands of leaked Roskomnadzor documents, shows that Russia’s internet censor is also a surveillance machine.
The agency was established on December 3, 2008, following a presidential decree (No. 1715), and granted a wide regulatory purview—ranging from telecommunications licensing to authorities to “supervise” mass media, telecommunications, and information technology in Russia. It was housed under Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media. Since its creation, the agency has played a pivotal censorship role; among many other tactics used to bring media under state control, the Russian government dictates which TV and radio broadcasters get licenses, which became Roskomnadzor’s responsibility. In November 2012, a new law came into effect requiring Roskomnadzor to set up a website blocklist, ostensibly to take down websites featuring exploitative content targeting children. Since then, the agency has used the list to punish websites which offend the regime. The government often tries to shut websites down entirely, and if the state cannot, it forces Russian internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to those listed websites. The censor is also charged with enforcing data protection rules for Russians—though, of course, protection from companies (not the regime).
During the Russian government’s war on Ukraine, Roskomnadzor has sent many censorship orders to foreign technology platforms and websites, demanding they remove information, like press reporting, about the war. The agency has also demanded they restore state content. In March, Roskomnadzor even called YouTube a tool of Western “information warfare” against the Russian Federation—evincing a genuine Kremlin belief that Western technology platforms, especially those born in Silicon Valley, are literal tools of Western influence-projection. Its crackdown has been even harsher against domestic Russian media, taking most independent media offline and forcing over 150 journalists to flee abroad.
The New York Times’ new investigation reveals that Roskomnadzor has gone far beyond managing website blocklists and filing censorship orders, more than was publicly known. For a couple of years now, the internet censor has compiled dossiers on individuals and organizations posting regime-critical content. It has monitored websites, social media, and news outlets to label them “pro-government,” “anti-government,” or “apolitical.” Roskomnadzor, per the Times, has “worked to unmask and surveil people behind anti-government accounts and provided detailed information on critics’ online activities to security agencies.” Reportedly, some of those people were subsequently arrested, and others fled Russia entirely.
Independent outlet Meduza had previously reported that Roskomnadzor was using a secret monitoring system, called the Office of Operational Interaction, to watch for “hotbeds of tension” and “instances of the destabilization of Russian society” (e.g., protest, news criticizing the regime). Authorities then compiled reports on relevant individuals and sent them to Russia’s Federal Protective Service, which guards the president and monitors for anti-regime plots, and its Interior Ministry, the national police. The documents published by the Times further describe spreadsheets tracking Russians’ online activity—going so far as, in at least one case, to yield a second document suggesting names for heightened surveillance.
Russian security agencies have spied on citizens for decades, including online. A well-known example is the SORM-3 internet surveillance system, run by the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic security organ. Officials made a firm push to expand SORM surveillance this spring, when the Ministry of Digital Development (which houses Roskomnadzor) began increasing fines or even stripping telecom licenses altogether from companies that have not installed the SORM-3 internet surveillance “black boxes.” Russia’s 2014 data localization law is another example, forcing companies to store the primary copy of Russians’ data locally so it’s easier for authorities to access (among other motives). But the reporting on leaked Roskomnadzor documents shows that Russia’s internet censor has been far more aggressive in shaping the domestic information environment and working with security agencies to do so.
While it is tempting to analyze internet control in a techno-centric way—emphasizing the digital over social, political, and other factors—these revelations are a strong reminder to think about how offline and online coercion intersect. Russian authorities may not have the capability to intercept every piece of data sent over the internet every minute, decrypt it, and store it in a huge database. But that imagined future, while a terrifying prospect, grossly overstates what a regime needs to stifle dissent online. If Roskomnadzor can monitor posts by influential people, identify them to security agencies, and have those people threatened, arrested, or worse, that in and of itself censors speech. It also signals to Russian citizens that if you get too vocal online, the authorities will find you.
Roskomnadzor has gone far beyond managing website blocklists to make that happen. The Putin regime has evidently bolstered its technical filtering capabilities in the last year or so, as previously half-botched attempts to block or slow websites (like Twitter last spring) gave way since February to somewhat more successful blocks on Facebook, Instagram, the BBC, Bellingcat, and many other websites. But the internet censor’s switch to monitoring public online information, tracking people, and filing information to security agents and police reminds that targeted surveillance and physical coercion remain inextricably tied within Russia’s internet censorship regime.
Justin Sherman (@jshermcyber) is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.