Russia’s innovative techniques for monitoring the internet

Banning foreign social media platforms, blocking news sites and criminal prosecutions for online likes or comments: This is just the tip of the iceberg. When you delve deeper, it goes further still. The objective is a “clean internet,” the name given to a secret program developed by Russian authorities.

Thanks to an investigation published simultaneously on Wednesday, February 8, by a number of Russian investigative websites working in exile (mainly Proekt, Mediazona, Agenstvo and Radio Svoboda), details about the program have now been disclosed. The investigation itself was made possible after the internet surveillance agency Roskomnadzor was hacked in November 2022. Belarusian hackers affiliated with an organization called Cyber Partisans recovered 700,000 emails and two million documents.

On paper, Roskomnadzor is nothing more than an administrative agency responsible for distributing radio frequencies or ensuring compliance with data protection laws. In reality, it has become a body that controls, censors and even infiltrates entire segments of the internet.

‘Foreign agents’

The first lesson to be drawn from the leaks is the extent of the clampdown since the “special operation” began in Ukraine. During the first nine months of the conflict, 150,000 web pages and social media posts were deleted, particularly those mentioning Russian army losses or the crimes it is accused of having committed in Ukraine. Access to 72 Russian media outlets, 23 foreign media outlets and 630 Ukrainian websites was also blocked outright.

As part of their surveillance work, Roskomnadzor agents also shared some of their findings with other bodies such as the prosecutor’s office, the police and the FSB. To do so, they used topical chats with evocative names such as “False information [about the army],” “protest sentiment,” “destabilization,” “foreign interference”…

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Roskomnadzor also compiled lists of hundreds of journalists and bloggers, as well as a list of experts known to talk to them. Many of the people on these lists were then described as “foreign agents.” Other citizens, especially those in the cultural sphere, were also monitored in the same way.

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Citizens convicted

According to the Russian media taking part in the survey published on February 8, daily reports are also written about content circulating on the Russian internet on two topics considered highly sensitive: President Vladimir Putin’s health and military mobilization. More specific tasks may also be assigned to agents, such as ensuring online weather services include the annexed territories of Ukraine in Russian forecasts, or campaigns featuring negative comments about someone considered to be disloyal – an activity that until now seemed to be reserved for the “troll factories” of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin and the founder of the Wagner mercenary group.

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