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The Red Web: A Hacker's History of Russia

Amazon Book Review: The Red WebIf you hadn't noticed, "the cyber" has been in the news. Between Wikileaks, ransacked email servers, massive DDoS attacks through the "Internet of Things," our sense of security regarding personal information - and even confidence in the integrity of our elections - is under constant siege. But who are the perpetrators? Lately, it's assumed to be the "Russian hacker." But who is that?  One image that comes to mind is a hoodied teenager in a St. Petersburg basement, blue-faced under the glow of a CRT and the last case of Soviet Jolt Cola, cracking weak passwords and pilfering credit cards and identities. Another is more insidious: a concerted, sanctioned effort by foreign governments working on a large scale to disrupt rival powers, domestic or international.

As you probably imagine, details on these programs are hard to come by, and any investigative effort will come with a degree of personal risk. Journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan are no strangers to it: Their 2011 book, The New Nobility, documented the rise of Russia's modern Federal Security Service from the ashes of the KGB; in 2015, The Red Web drew on interviews with officials from Russia's Ministry of Communication and dissidents alike, describing the history of the Russian surveillance-state from the Soviet era to the present - and the online battles waged erode its power.

Here Sodatov and Borogan provide a look into few of the systems and players shaping that shadowy world.


The murky world of Russia's cyber-espionage

by Andrei Sodatov and Irina Borogan

"The cyber" originating from Russia
Since 2007, most Kremlin offensives include an aggressive cyber component: intimidating denial-of-service attacks on neighboring countries; the leak of intercepted phone conversation between Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state for Europe, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the US ambassador to Ukraine, to provoke a quarrel between the United States and Europe during the Maidan protests in Kiev; trolling international media to promote Russia's perspective on the Ukraine conflict; the hacking of a power plant in Ukraine in December 2015 and the hacking attacks on the US in 2016.

Although the Russian security and intelligence services have cyberwar capabilities, most of the strikes come through other channels. The Kremlin understands well that the use of contacts and agreements orchestrated informally by a government official rather than a chain of command provides plausible deniability. It also makes the moves of the Kremlin less predictable.

SORM stands for the Russian words meaning "operative search measures." Actually it's a Russian system of eavesdropping and surveillance on all kinds of communications, from phone calls to emails, social media and messengers.

All Russian operators and Internet Service Providers are required to install the SORM black boxes, about the size of an old videocassette recorder, which would fit on a rack of equipment, and provide connection to the regional departments of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor of the KGB.

The result: the FSB could intercept whenever anyone on Russian soil made a phone call or checked an e-mail. Pure and simple, the SORM box is a backdoor to Russia's Internet.

Kuchino, the birthplace of SORM
Kuchino, about twelve miles east of Moscow, was built on an old pre-revolutionary industrialist's estate. It is the oldest research facility of the Soviet police state, and it had been in service as far back as 1929 for Stalin's NKVD, a forerunner to the KGB. Kuchino had a storied history of accomplishments, such as figuring out how to intercept a human voice from the vibrations of a window. In one of their most ambitious and successful exploits, the experts at Kuchino planted a listening device inside a large replica of the Great Seal of the United States and presented it as a gift to the US ambassador in August 1945, and it was hung in the ambassador's study. The device transmitted sound waves out of the ambassador's study to the Soviet secret services until it was exposed in 1952.

It became the KGB's main research center for surveillance technologies, including the all-pervasive Soviet system of phone tapping and communications interception.

It was here, in Kuchino, where the technical method of full, unrestricted access to all communications known as SORM was developed in the 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union postponed the deployment of SORM, and the first installation of SORM took place in the mid-1990s. SORM has been constantly updated ever since, most recently in April 2015.

Andrei Bykov, a father of SORM
Short and thin, with gray hair combed back and sunken cheeks, Bykov was deputy director of the FSB from 1992 to 1996, holding the rank of colonel-general.

An engineer by training, Bykov studied at the Moscow State Technical University in Department No. 6, which focused on small arms research. Within three years after graduation he was recruited by the KGB. In 1966 he entered the KGB's Operative-Technical Department, in charge of bugging, interception, and technical surveillance operations, and rose up through its ranks to become department chief. On December 5, 1991, the chairman of the KGB ordered Bykov to hand over documents to the United States which confirmed the bugging of the new US Embassy in Moscow.

In the 1990s Bykov's signature was on most of the SORM documents.

Ruslan Leviev, an activist
Ruslan Leviev is a 27-year old computer geek and a lawyer by training. Short and thin, with earrings in both of his earlobes and often with a radical haircut, he was born in the Russian Far East, where he worked for an NGO providing poor citizens with legal support in court.

In 2009 he moved to Moscow and in 2011 joined the protests against fraud in the parliamentary elections. He was detained, and spent two days in prison. When he left the detention center he decided to help Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny build his online project. When Navalny's blog was blocked by the authorities, Leviev designed the Big Red button – the tool to bypass the blocking. He also found the way to mock Russian censors. When the government censors attempted to check whether the Navalny blog was working, their screens were filled with images of cats and ponies.

Pavel Durov
Pavel Durov is a mysterious founder of Vkontakte, a popular Russian social network modeled after Facebook. When he was 27, Durov changed algorithms during the Moscow protests to allow more users to join the online organizing groups.

Durov boldly published a scan of a written FSB request—in the document, a general chief of the FSB branch in St. Petersburg asked him to "cease the activity" of seven online groups related to the protests. The day after revealing the document, Durov was summoned to the St. Petersburg Prosecutor's Office. He refused to come, posted information about the summons to the prosecutor's office, and again refused to close down the online groups.

In 2013 he refused to hand over the personal data of Ukrainian activists who set up Euromaidan groups. In the Spring 2014 he was forced to sell his share in the company, resigned as a CEO of Vkontakte and left Russia.

Edward Snowden
On June 23, 2013, Edward Snowden flew into Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. He was forced into exile because he didn't want to be an anonymous source of the leaks about the NSA – he wanted to be transparent.

Snowden landed in a country with a long tradition of secrecy and suppressing freedom of speech, a landscape roiled by the secret control and surveillance he claimed to despise. When he landed in Moscow, the Kremlin was in the middle of a large-scale offensive against Internet freedoms. Transparency was the first casualty when Snowden went to Russia. He held a press-conference in the airport, but journalists were not invited. Since then he made a point never to meet Russian journalists.

Snowden also chose Anatoly Kucherena as his Moscow representative and lawyer. Kucherena is a member of the Public Council within the FSB, a public relations organization established in 2007 to promote the image of the Russian security service. Kucherena also serves as chairman of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a front organization for Russia's propaganda machine, with branches in New York and Paris. Putin had suggested personally that such an institute be created to criticize human rights violations in the United States."

Snowden never explained his choice.


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