Russia’s ‘PRISM on steroids’ surveillance will monitor all communications at Winter Olympics

7 Oct 2013

Image via 06photo/Shutterstock

Documents collected by investigative journalists in Russia have revealed the extent to which the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) intends to monitor communications at the upcoming Winter Olympics, with a system that has been described as “PRISM on steroids”.

These are the words of Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, where researchers examine the intersection of cyberspace, global security and human rights. Citizen Lab co-operated with the research by Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, who compiled technical documents published on Zakupki, their government’s official procurement portal, as well as public records from government oversight agencies.

These documents show that the FSB plans for all communications from the 2014 Winter Olympics to be closely monitored. Telephone and internet spying technologies have been installed throughout the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the Games are to be held. As well as intercepting phone calls and data traffic, the journalists believe the FSB can even track the use of certain words or phrases used in emails, online chats or social networks using deep packet inspection.

Lawful interception

In Russia, the FSB is permitted to monitor telephone and internet communications by law and all telephone and ISP providers must implement a surveillance system called SORM. According to technical specifications set out by Russia’s state telecoms agency uncovered in this investigation, additional technology is now being added to telephone and Wi-Fi networks for even more extensive monitoring with keyword filtering technology built in.

With government access forming part of the telecommunications infrastructure, the FSB can intercept data without even informing the provider. This is what prompted Deibert’s description of a system stronger than PRISM, the surveillance technology used by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US.

US visitors advised to be cautious of communications

PRISM hit the headlines earlier this year when former CIA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents on the inner workings of the cyberspying technology to newspapers such as The Guardian, which described Russia’s system as “some of the most invasive and systematic spying and surveillance in the history of the Games.”

Demonstrating its awareness of the extensive communications surveillance in Russia, the US state department’s bureau of diplomatic security reportedly published a leaflet earlier this year advising visitors to the major sporting event to be careful of how they communicate and what they discuss while in Sochi.

Meanwhile, at a press conference this week, FSB official Alexei Lavrishchev denied allegations that security and surveillance at the February Games would be excessive, claiming that measures taken during the London Olympics were far more invasive.

Webcam on laptop image by 06photo via Shutterstock

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.