Revelation of the Russian hack into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer system may have surprised many Americans. Instead of the mere collection of sensitive data that could be used for espionage (such as the Chinese OPM hack) or for criminal enterprises (such as the Target hack), the DNC hack had political motivations. This type of political hacking may appear new, but it should not be a surprise to those who observe Russia closely, especially those who have seen how Russia controls and manipulates the Internet domestically.
P.W. Singer, a Strategist at New America and a Popular Science editor, explained in a must-listen interview with Reuters’ War College podcast that the DNC hack exemplifies one aspect of “information warfare”, a set of tactics which the Russians essentially created. Because information can threaten state stability, it must be controlled at home and may be exploited abroad. Using information as a weapon may appear foreign, and it’s true Westerners and Russians view the Internet quite differently. While speaking with Russian officials, Singer found that they would describe an “information attack” as something similar to rumors that threaten state stability being spread on Facebook, whereas Western officials would describe it as something like hacking into power grid infrastructure. According to Singer, Russia’s ability and willingness to use information warfare poses a serious threat to democracy.
For those concerned about information warfare or cybersecurity in general, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan offer a comprehensive overview of Russian Internet policy at home and abroad in The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators & the New Online Revolutionaries. Cofounders of Agentura.ru, the authors bring their years of experience reporting on the Russian Internet to explain the ongoing story about how the Kremlin tries to control information’s spread online. Going back to the Stalin era, they explain not only the policy but the history and culture that influences today’s environment. Extensive research and numerous interviews with key actors reveal the tools and tactics Russia, and other dictatorships willing to buy the technology, may use to thwart American interests. Even if someone merely intends to travel in Russia while carrying a laptop or cell phone, this book is a must-read.
One critical tool in the Kremlin’s arsenal is the monitoring device Systema Operativno-Rozysknikh Meropriatiy, or SORM. The first versions intercepted and recorded phone calls for the Soviet Union, but now Internet service providers (ISPs) install the latest generations of SORM onto Internet lines so that the FSB (the Russian equivalent to the FBI) can intercept content (not just metadata) from applications such as email or Skype. Technically, the FSB must have a warrant to intercept content, but they do not have to show the warrant to the ISP and can access the content without the ISP ever knowing (66-78). According to Red Web, this procedure contrasts with the US, where authorities must generally give ISP and other companies warrants or gain their voluntary cooperation, at which point the companies sometimes resist or cause public debate (68, 71-73). Nevertheless, civil liberty activists may argue with the authors on this point, and more details about how US and Russian policy differ would have been helpful.
Governments should employ surveillance devices to combat crime and terrorism, as long as their use has proper oversight (see Brian Auten’s article about “just surveillance”). However, according to Soldatov and Borogan, the SORM devices enable Putin and the oligarchs to control information online and obstruct a free press and political opponents. For instance, the Kremlin can secretly collect a massive amount of kompromat, meaning compromising material released to the public to blackmail activists, embarrass opponents, influence elections, create confusion, and so forth (70). As Red Web argues, much of the kompromat used against journalists and others most likely came from content that SORM intercepted (154).
In addition to SORM and kompromat, Putin’s arsenal against critical online publications or political opponents also includes distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks by “hacker patriots”. (Some argue that these groups are unrelated to the Kremlin, but Red Web makes the case for why they are connected.) A very crude but effective tactic, DDOS occurs when an attacker uses a multitude of infected computers to access a website at the same time, and the site often crashes as a result (116-117, 149-153). If successful, these attacks can prevent Russians from reading articles about what the government has done.
Soldatov and Borogan cover much else in Red Web that would interest general readers who follow either global affairs or US foreign policy. An entire chapter explains the Snowden affair from a Russian perspective (195-222). The book’s back cover includes Snowden’s praise for Soldatov as “the single most prominent critic of Russia’s surveillance apparatus”. But the authors are frustrated that Snowden nearly completely ignores Russian transgressions, which Red Web paints as far more intrusive and a substantially larger threat to civil liberties globally. At best, they present Snowden as a naïve Kremlin pawn.
Readers interested in geopolitics may also be interested in Red Web’s description of how the Russian government uses paid “trolls” against Kremlin opponents. While the Kremlin understands that trolling campaigns usually fail in the West since they are easy to spot, the same type of campaigns can be effective in countries where the Russians understand the culture better, such as Ukraine (283-290).
For readers more specifically interested in Internet technology or policy, Red Web also offers several tidbits that would help the industry. For instance, it describes how websites could bypass government blocking tools by allowing readers to continue reading articles on various subdomains that the government has difficulty blocking (267-289).
Other readers may benefit from reading about Russia’s position on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN), the private nonprofit that oversees Internet governance such as domain names. A few conservatives became upset when Obama recently transferred the last bit of control the US had retained to ICANN. Some claimed Russia wanted ICANN to control the Internet so that the Kremlin could influence it. However, Russia actually seeks to constrain ICANN and give Internet governing power to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN agency that states could control. Red Web does an excellent job explaining Russia’s maneuvering, which ultimately failed thanks to American diplomacy (228-238).
Though Red Web exposes how Russia strives to control the Internet on its territory, Soldatov and Borogan end their book on a fairly positive note. Efforts to censor the Internet by controlling companies’ leadership fail because the Internet allows almost anyone to create and share content on social media. True, Putin and the Kremlin have limited freedom of expression on the Internet and attacked Internet companies that refused to censor content critical of the government. For instance, the creator of VKontakte, a Russian version of Facebook, Pavel Durov refused to give the FSB details of Ukrainian organizers of the Euromaidan groups, so he was forced to sell the shares of his company and then fled Russia (293-294). Moreover, large technology companies like Facebook and Google have begun to follow Russian government guidelines without much resistance (210, 272-273).
However, top-down approaches to power, an essential part of Putin’s worldview, are ineffective. Even though the government suppressed press freedoms, targeted critics, and gained control of websites like VKontakte, Putin could not keep secret that Russian troops were fighting in eastern Ukraine. Patriotic soldiers posted pictures on VKontakte of their units inside Ukraine fighting, and the news went viral (307-309). Soldatov and Borogan are therefore optimistic that social networks online will ultimately defeat dictators who try to control the flow of information.
A year ago when Red Web came out, details of how Russia controls and monitors the Internet probably did not interest most Americans who consider these issues to be a problem “over there”. Yet the DNC hack has revealed how Russia’s approach to the Internet has a wide impact. Even for Republicans gleeful over the Clinton camp’s embarrassing emails, there should be concern about future Russian information warfare, which could easily include kompromat about the RNC or almost anyone else when it is convenient and advantageous for the Kremlin. As the US considers how to respond proportionally to the latest hacks and leaks, Red Web offers an essential and helpful insight about how Russia views Internet policy at home and abroad.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and focuses on European politics.
Photo Credit: Networking switch in California. By Andrew Hart, via Flickr.