Roskomnadzor has become Putin’s powerful personal surveillance network

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from regulatory-thugs department

The Russian Roskomnadzor has never been a powerful government thug. Before, it was almost nothing at all. It was an afterthought – a regulatory agency created to cover things that hardly anyone considered important. It was formed in 2008 and tasked with overseeing radio signals, telecommunications and the Russian postal service.

But then he was told to monitor the internet. And its power grew as Vladimir Putin’s power grew, growing from a forgotten bureaucracy of a few dozen employees to a juggernaut capable of shutting down the internet and controlling Russian internet communications.

The New York Times has obtained 160,000 pages of leaked documents detailing Roskomnadzor’s activities from the transparency activist group, DDoSecrets. They show how powerful the regulatory agency has become, both in terms of internet surveillance and as a weapon to deploy in Putin’s endless propaganda campaigns.

The agency’s role in this digital net is more extensive than previously known, according to the records. It has morphed over the years from a sleepy telecoms regulator into a full-fledged intelligence agency, closely monitoring websites, social media and news outlets, calling them “pro-government,” anti-government” or “apolitical”.

Roskomnadzor also worked to unmask and monitor the people behind anti-government accounts and provided detailed information about the critics’ online activities to security agencies, the documents show. This complemented real-world actions, with those being monitored being attacked for speaking out online. Some were then arrested by the police and detained for months. Others have fled Russia for fear of prosecution.

Roskomnadzor is Putin’s personal army. While its current army is deployed with the aim of transforming Ukraine into another Eastern bloc country, its telecommunications regulator is waging war at home, stifling dissent and promoting the party line.

One of the ways the agency achieves its goal is through the installation of hardware. Documents show that Roskomnadzor mandated the installation of “censorship boxes” by local internet service providers. These devices allowed the Russian government to become the man in the middle when public opinion turned against it, giving it the power to strangle services used by government critics. They also allow the government to disconnect services whenever it deems necessary. Access to Twitter has been repeatedly restricted. The agency has also completely blocked access to Facebook and Instagram and made sure that VPN services are unusable by Russian citizens.

It is also a surveillance agency, according to documents obtained and disclosed by DDofSecrets.

Just in Bashkortostan, an oil-rich region with around 4 million people, Roskomnadzor has tracked the online activities of hundreds of people and organizations. He gathered information on government criticism and identified shifting political views on social media. He compiled files on independent media outlets and online influencers who shared information unfavorable to the government that could gain traction with the Russian public.

Roskomnadzor is an authoritarian Swiss army knife. Everything the government expects of him, he can do, thanks to his insertion into all parts of Russian communications. Enacted laws may theoretically restrict Roskomnadzor’s actions, but reality (and leaked documents) show that he only responds to the dictates of Putin and his supporters, no matter what the law actually says. There is no oversight to answer to other than Putin himself.

In some cases, censors recorded their screens showing details down to the movements of their computer mouse as they watched the internet. They monitored overtly political videos and at other times focused on less overtly disturbing content, like this viral song by young rapper KEML. Bashkortostan is known as a rap hub in Russia.

Roskomnadzor also helped Mr. Putin centralize power away from Moscow. The Bashkortostan regional office shared only a fraction of its work with the local government, according to a document. Many reports were instead sent directly to the FSB and other central agencies.

It is an internet regulator that acts as a spy agency and communicates directly with an actual spy agency. Russian citizens are the targets. The Russian state gradually moved closer to the Big Brother ideal of the former Soviet Union, which turned neighbor against neighbor with the help of the KGB. The new, supposedly freer Russian state is now indistinguishable from the one that erected the Berlin Wall, thanks to Putin and Roskomnadzor. All that’s missing is land mass. Cue the invasion of Ukraine.

During the first weeks of the war against Ukraine, Roskomnadzor’s censors intensified, according to the documents. They focused not just on the war, but on its aftereffects, including the public’s response to a nationwide crackdown on dissent and grumbling about the invasion’s effect on the rising cost of goods.

On February 27, agency officials monitored the reaction to reports that an Ufa family – including young children – had been arrested for protesting the war. Another report flagged an article that was rapidly spreading online describing how the FSB brutally beat and electrocuted a protester.

“Some users have negatively assessed the actions of law enforcement,” they wrote, noting that 200,000 users had viewed the news on the Telegram messaging app.

Anything of interest to the government is part of a file. Public opinion is measured. Targets for surveillance and/or prosecution are determined. Government officials are notified. Officers are put to work countering the negative perception. Anything not considered useful or innocuous is censored. This is all done by an agency that was set up to keep an eye on postal mail.

What is detailed in the New York Times report is staggering. Even more amazing is the fact that this leak only covers the actions of a Roskomnadzor regional office. It happens all over the country and is probably executed with even more alacrity and intensity by the offices located in the nation’s capital.

The Russian government has perfected narrative control and nationwide censorship under Putin. And he has a massive, well-oiled apparatus to make sure the government gets its way. This leak exposes the inner workings of this machinery. Unfortunately, Putin’s regime is unlikely to be embarrassed to recall the censored brutality. Some governments are simply not ashamed.

Filed Under: roskomnadzor, rozkomnadzor, russia, oversight, ukraine, vladimir putin

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