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Police Get Window Of Access To E-mail




Under an obscure bit of legislation quietly approved by acting President Vladimir Putin, the nation's major law enforcement and security bodies - from the tax police to the Border Guards - are to be technically equipped to enjoy instant real-time access to e-mail and other electronic traffic.


Seven law enforcement bodies named in the new law are now to join the Federal Security Service - the main KGB successor agency and acting President Putin's alma-mater - in being hard-wired to Russia's Internet service providers.


These authorities are still required by the Russian Constitution to obtain a court warrant before tapping phones, opening e-mails or accessing other private correspondence between citizens or organizations. But for all of them, e-mails, e-commerce transactions and other Internet traffic will be a mere mouse-click away - easily perused without anyone ever knowing, regardless of what the courts or the Constitution may say.


"This means Russia has officially become a police state," Yelena Bonner, the human rights activist and wife of the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday from Boston, where she has been visiting for the past few months. "And this war-time police state came about unnoticed when Putin rose to power on Dec. 31."


Putin signed the legislation - an amendment to the 1995 Law on Operational Investigations that passed the State Duma on Dec. 1 - on Jan. 5. It took force Jan. 6 upon publication in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper.


The original 1995 law gave the security services the right to monitor all sorts of correspondence, from postal deliveries to cell phone conversations, provided they first obtained a warrant.


With the growth of the Internet, the FSB and the State Communications Committee have issued new regulations - based on their interpretation of the 1995 law - that force Internet service providers to link their computers to those at FSB headquarters.


Internet service providers do not like to talk about the FSB's so-called SORM project - the acronym stands for Sistema Operativno-Rozysknykh Meropriyatii, or System for Operational-Investigative Activities. But many of them have already quietly complied.


The costs to the Internet service provider of installing the equipment are estimated from $10,000 to $30,000, not including any future upgrades. That's enough to shut down some smaller providers, and some SORM-watchers argue that the big Internet players actually welcome SORM as it helps them consolidate their market-share.


The new amendment doesn't mention SORM by name or detail the new technical requirements for Internet service providers. But it does extend the FSB's hard-wired access to electronic traffic to seven other agencies: the tax police, the Interior Ministry, the Border Guards, the Customs Committee, the Kremlin security service, the presidential security service, the parliamentary security services and the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR.


Internet experts interviewed on Wednesday said they expected the additional security organs could simply piggy-back on the FSB's SORM technology, which has already been installed at the expense - and expertise - of the providers.


Human rights activists worry that the FSB - and now the seven other security organs - will not bother getting a court order when they can see private information at a whim. And if once they placed some faint hopes on the FSB simply not having the manpower to systematically track mass quantities of e-mail and other traffic, the situation has drastically changed now that eight security organs can in theory be working at once, perhaps even in cooperation.


"It was bad enough that the FSB had unlimited control over confidential correspondence, and now it is multiplied eight times," said Boris Pustintsev, chairman of St. Petersburg-based Citizens' Watch rights group. Pustintsev said the new law amounted to "the end of all e-mail privacy."


"The FSB alone had some problems implementing SORM as NGOs [non-governmental organizations] were fighting it. Now, it will be routine [to get SORM set up and functioning], as you can't fight a monster with eight heads," he said.


The FSB says SORM will help law enforcement track and capture criminals ranging from tax evaders to pedophiles, because such people may conduct or discuss their business electronically.


Human rights groups counter that the Russian security services are unrepentant over their dark history and cannot be trusted with such power. They argue that agents will abuse SORM to assemble political dossiers for blackmail purposes and to steal and sell commercial secrets - something that could line the pockets of agents and organizations who have not fared well under post-Soviet budgets.


In the nationally televised New Year's Eve address in which he acknowledged Boris Yeltsin's resignation and took on the duties of the presidency, Putin promised he would be a generous patron to Russia's security services.


"The potential of the special services will not just be maintained but increased," Putin pledged then.


The FSB and the tax police did not reply to questions faxed by The Moscow Times.

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