How Do Russians Feel About Putin Eavesdropping on Them?

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, August 5. Andrei Soldatov, the Russian expert on the secret services, describes how Putin’s regime monitors the Internet. Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Reuters

Andrei Soldatov, the Russian expert on the Russian secret services, describes how Putin's regime monitors the internet.

Russians do not appear concerned about state monitoring. Why is this?

Russians accept the idea that state surveillance is something that cannot be changed. People still use the phrase "This is not a phone conversation." This fear is still very present. The other thing is that when you look into technology companies, you find that many of them have connections to the security services.

The Putin regime has a fear of social networks. Did that start with the Arab Spring?

The Arab Spring changed everything. Before that Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's then president, wasn't afraid of technology—he wanted to use it. But Putin has a KGB mentality and his mindset is influenced by the events of 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The secret services think that the West can produce magical tools that overthrow regimes. They saw this with the Color Revolutions and then with the Arab Spring. There is a genuine belief that the West is always plotting to find a new way to undermine political stability in Russia.

Has the regime finally harnessed social media in Russia?

Their trolls play with a sense of grievance against the West, about promises that have been broken and the legacy of the Second World War and the idea that the Soviet Union was the country that won the war. Then there is the strong feeling of insecurity felt by the middle classes. People who used to support Alexei Navalny, the political activist, now think they need to support Putin to avoid a Maidan on their streets. Abroad, this approach is successful in very limited areas such as Ukraine and Eastern Europe, but they fail spectacularly in the US and Britain.

Why does the regime use large numbers of "hacker patriots"?

If you are young and not particularly well educated and you live in the regions, it can feel like there is no place for you in Russia. That was picked up by people like Vladislav Surkov, the Russian businessman turned politician, who repeatedly said that pro-government youth organizations and camps are a social lift for people from the regions. For many, it was the only way to start their careers.

Putin's camp mobilized lots of young people in case a revolution brought people onto the streets and the regime needed to counter that physically. But that never happened, so they desperately wanted to find some occupation for all these youths.

You have these ready-made connections and structures founded and supported by the state all across the country. And then you have the idea of the cyberattacks and online campaigns, so they discovered they now had a job for all these people.

What is the difference between monitoring by the FSB, Russia's secret service, and the NSA in the U.S.?

The main difference is that we all use digital services built by American companies. And all traffic generally goes through the U.S., so the NSA has great advantages. It is very unlikely that European Internet traffic will be sent through Russia, making it impossible for Russian security services to intercept it.

Putin once said that we were ethically different from the U.S., but once the Russian authorities saw the opportunity in Ukraine where VKontakte is the most popular social network site, they immediately went to the company and asked them to provide all the information they had about Ukrainian activists.

The problem is that the British government doesn't use VKontakte. And the FSB doesn't have the same facilities to store data as the NSA because it didn't invest in them. They do not want to pay for data storage even now, but instead place the cost of surveillance on companies, who they know will eventually accept it.

What is the point of all of this for the FSB?

The point is intimidation. It is exactly the same as in the 1980s, when everybody was certain that they were being tapped, which is why many things were not discussed on the phone. Instead, in 1991 there was this astonishing revelation that the KGB were only able to listen to 300 phone lines in Moscow, which is nothing, especially compared with the Stasi.

But everybody understood that it was better not to talk about things on the phone. They got the point. It was all about intimidation, and I think it is still about intimidation.

This article first appeared on the Chatham House, the Royal Institution of International Affairs site.

Andre Soldatov is the author of The Red Web, published by Public Affairs, and co-written with Irina Borogan.