Legal wiretaps have almost doubled in Russia over the past five years due to lack of external control over the secret services, according to official and publicly available statistics unearthed by a leading Russian security analyst.
“This is both a political and a bureaucratic story,” said Andrei Soldatov, editor-in-chief of Agentura.ru, an online secret services think-tank. He added that the services often abuse their powers, including for illegal monitoring of political opposition.
The courts issued 466,152 sanctions for telephone wiretaps and inspection of regular and electronic mail in 2011, according to the website of the Judicial Department at the Russian Supreme Court.
The figure stood at 265,937 in 2007, the department said.
Only 3,554 wiretap requests, or under 1 percent of the total, were rejected in 2011, compared to 4,246 in 2007.
Eight agencies in Russia are currently authorized to monitor citizens’ conversations, among them the police, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Foreign Intelligence Service, intelligence agency GRU and even the Federal Prison Service. The actual amount of wiretapping may be bigger than publicly revealed because intelligence agencies are exempt from disclosing information about their surveillance operations, according to Soldatov’s report on Agentura.ru.
The tendency is global, with the United States and European countries also stepping up surveillance of the public’s private conversations and easing regulations for wiretapping, Soldatov told RIA Novosti.
However, the Western countries are doing it to combat terrorism, while in Russia, officials report a decrease in both terrorist and overall criminal activity, Soldatov said. Moscow formally ended its counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya in 2009, and the Interior Ministry said crime rates have been on the decrease since 2007.
“The agencies are boosting their resources just because they can,” Soldatov said.
No security agency has commented on the report. Emailed requests to the FSB and the Interior Ministry went unanswered in time for publication.
The growing use of wiretapping, boosted by new technologies, is not harmful per se, but could result in abuse of power in absence of external control, usually exerted by the parliament, Soldatov said.
Russian State Duma, controlled by the pro-Kremlin United Russia, is not vested with power to investigate wiretapping by security agencies, unlike legislatures in the EU and the United States.
Agencies authorized for wiretapping include the Interior Ministry’s anti-extremism department, which was involved, or accused of involvement, in crackdowns on opposition activists since the department’s inception in 2008.
Tapped conversations by opposition figures have been appearing online since 2010, with none of the leaks solved. The trend was started by a string of compromising videos featuring politicians Eduard Limonov, Alexander Belov and Ilya Yashin, as well as journalists Mikhail Fishman and Viktor Shenderovich, who were separately filmed bribing traffic police, taking drugs and having sex with a woman.
Last October, hackers leaked emails from the mailbox of corruption whistleblower Alexei Navalny, the only Russian on Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list for 2012.
A fresh string of exposes took place last winter, which was marked by mass street protests against the Kremlin, which took both the government and the opposition leaders by surprise. Pro-Kremlin tabloid Lifenews.ru published recordings of conversations by liberal politician Boris Nemtsov with fellow Kremlin bashers, including Yashin, journalist Sergei Parkhomenko and lawmaker Gennady Gudkov. Nemtsov unsuccessfully sued the publication, which never disclosed the source of the recordings.
“If wiretapping took place, it must have originated from the secret services,” Soldatov said.
The Investigative Committee has opened a case into the Nemtsov leak in December, but reported no progress since.
Many private security companies used to run their own illegal wiretapping teams in the 1990s, but in the 2000s, it became easier to pay off corrupt FSB or police officials to handle the job, Soldatov said.
The most high-profile wiretapping case in recent years was opened against Alexander Bulbov, a senior official with the Federal Drug Control Agency, which has the authority to monitor personal conversations. Bulbov was held in 2007 on a long list of charges which included fraud, abuse of office and illegal wiretapping, though he was only convicted on the first two charges. Many analysts called the case the result of a turf war between Bulbov’s agency and the FSB.