The FSB and the Web: Out innovated, yet again.
Posted by democratist on April 8, 2011
8th April 2011,
It would appear, on the basis of a recent statement from the Ministry of Information that the Russian Security Service (FSB) is currently unable to effectively monitor communications on Gmail, Hotmail, Skype (and presumably other similarly protected sites) because the encryption built into these systems has become too sophisticated to allow for easy state snooping.
Apparently, the FSB now considers these services a threat to national security, and would like to have them banned (although this remains unlikely, for the moment).
If this story is true (rather than some kind of sneaky FSB bluff) it means that Russia’s Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) outfit, the “Service of Special Communications and Information” (part of the FSB since 2003) is unable to easily break into commercially available Western cryptography with the equipment currently at their disposal.
Our guess is that it almost certainly is true - and would help to explain (for example) the FSB’s repeated inability to prevent bomb attacks in Moscow over the last few years.
And if the FSB can’t crack the commercial stuff, what are the odds they can still break into the secure communications systems of Western governments and militaries on a regular basis (normally one of the principle tasks of such agencies)?
More fundamentally, this announcement yet again underscores that, while the Russian government is continuing to make a concerted attempt to drive innovation through increased funding, corruption – both within the government and the wider economy, is slowly degrading even those parts of the state which the regime has sought to privilege.
As we saw last June, the SVR has been penetrated (probably repeatedly) by the CIA in recent years, and has now resorted to using “super-spy” Anna Chapman as a domestic propaganda tool - replacing real success with a pale fictive copy. As for the military industrial complex, while weapons designers are still coming up with innovative ideas, the state of the defence industry is such that it is unable to reproduce these systems in the numbers required. In the wider high-tech sector, government policy to encourage growth through the creation of large state controlled agglomerates – especially in armaments, the nuclear industry and aerospace – has not been effective, and such industries continued to account for only about 3% of GDP in 2008.
Over the last few years then, Russia been unable to modernize, but it also now seems more handicapped than ever in its efforts to catch up with the West through espionage (a strategy employed, albeit at unsustainable cost during the final phase of the cold war - and which continues today), or to convert stolen, or new ideas into usable weapons or products in significant quantities.
In terms of the internet specifically, the state appears to be using amateur “patriotic hackers” to carry out DDoS attacks on opposition websites such as LiveJournal, because they dare not attack them directly under current political circumstances. But while LiveJournal in particular may be open to greater direct pressure in the future (a fact Russian bloggers might want to consider), this recent statement implies a deeper, a more serious technical malaise at the FSB than has been so far publicly apparent.
The Russian state is becoming increasingly out-innovated in terms of its ability to compete with the West, to monitor its citizen’s communications, and to control the information to which they have access. Structural international pressure on Russia to reform is still somewhat limited for the time being, but seems likely to grow more intense over time.