Commonwealth of Surveillance States: The dangers of Russian-made surveillance technology

Access recently released a paper by Peter Bourgelais, an Access Tech Fellow, highlighting the growing electronic surveillance in post-Soviet Central Asia and the difficulties of regulating its manufacture and distribution. In Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, Russian-made technologies and companies dominate the market, and techniques that have limited regulatory efficacy elsewhere — such as export controls and public campaigning — are much less effective.

The increasing availability of these technologies, based on old Soviet-era secret policing systems, are allowing governments in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to infringe on their citizens’ rights to privacy and free expression. It already hasn’t been a great year for political rights in the region: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have all fallen from their already low positions on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, while Turkmenistan has remained steady third from the bottom, just one spot above North Korea.

While detailing the challenges involved in enforcing respect for human rights amidst this erosion of political rights, the report finds a number of possible avenues for addressing these abuses: “naming and shaming” Western investors, campaigns involving the UN Human Rights Council and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and direct engagement with individuals to improve conditions.

SORM and Surveillance

Much of the surveillance conducted in the region utilizes the System for Operative-Investigative Activities (SORM), a Russian technical framework developed by the old Soviet secret police, the KGB. There are three versions of the system in use, which allow for varying levels of surveillance. SORM-1 monitors phone traffic, SORM-2 online traffic, while SORM-3 purportedly can monitor all forms of communication and accommodate up to three years of storage. The technology is often disseminated throughout the region by Russian companies such as MFI-Soft and PROTEI.

Using variants of SORM, the report finds that the Uzbek and Kazakh state security services “are capable of interception of landline telephone communications, internet traffic, semi-structured data such as SMS, MMS, and forum posts, and automated voice and facial recognition.” In Tajikistan, it’s possible for the government to intercept landline phones and internet traffic. And although the surveillance capabilities of Turkmenistan appear more limited, they have at least a preliminary system in place to collect extensive data through mobile phones.

In each of these countries, the surveillance capacity of the government poses a clear threat to their citizens’ fundamental right to privacy. And as the recent report on surveillance and free expression by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection to the right of freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, underlines, any such violation of privacy further undermines individuals’ rights to free expression and free access to information.

Limiting Proliferation

Limiting the sale of SORM technologies is one means of reducing the potential for future rights violations. However, most of the recent discourse surrounding electronic surveillance in repressive regimes has largely focused on Western companies complicit in the sales of such technology. The tactics developed for combatting these instances have been little help against Russian companies in Central Asia, which are typically less responsive to public critique and often have deep ties to state policing apparatus.

Instead, as the paper proposes, the human rights community needs to find new ways to effect change. One possible technique is “naming and shaming” Western investors in these companies; this may be especially useful in light of the Russian government’s recent attempts to attract foreign investors to it’s tech industry. Another potential tactic is campaigning against these rights abuses on an international stage, particularly through the complaint procedures associated with the office of the Special Rapporteur, Frank La Rue.

The paper also suggests that, while exploring these options, it is important to improve conditions for the more than 60 million citizens in post-Soviet Central Asia through direct action and education. This includes researching ways to detect surveillance, broadening access to encryption, and training individuals in its use.

The current discourse on the role Western companies play in electronic surveillance is insufficient, and omits the significant agency of non-Western corporations. The paper provides a detailed analysis on how the presence of Russian technology and companies allows rights violations to continue and presents important potential avenues of redress to mass electronic surveillance in Central Asia, conducted thus far with near-impunity.