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Russia Digital data Privacy

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Russia introduces not-so-secret mass surveillance

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An anti-terror law that came into effect on 1 July in Russia requires mobile and internet companies to store all text messages, phone conversations and chats for six months in data centres on Russian territory. Getty Images/Nadla

In Russia, anti-terror laws requiring telecoms companies to store users’ communications came into effect on Sunday. Defenders of civil liberties are warning of a new affront to privacy and personal freedom.


The new law is part of a package of anti-terror legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in July 2016.

It requires mobile and internet companies to store all text messages, phone conversations and chats for six months in data centres on Russian territory.

“Presumably this legislation will allow security services to request this information from the companies, who will have no option to deny the request,” says Yulia Gorbunova with Human Rights Watch in Moscow.

“It will effectively lead to the creation of stores of very sensitive data that security agencies can have access to without any judicial oversight.”

Critics have called the new legislation “Russia’s Big Brother Law”, arguing it is the latest in a series of new laws that extend authorities’ scope for targeting civil society groups and silencing activists.

“There has been a steady adoption of regressive laws that not only restrict the free flow of information online, but also give the Russian authorities access to the personal communication data of anyone,” says David Diaz-Jogeix, director of programmes with UK-based global freedom of information group Article 19.

“We’re dealing with a country that has a track record of very authoritarian policies, and we see how the Russian authorities arbitrarily misuse the existing provisions to provide restrictions to opposition views and critical viewpoints.”

In the way they appear to grant security agents mass access to private communications, the measures are akin to the surveillance programmes of the United States intelligence services, the National Security Agency, revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

The notable difference is the level of secrecy involved.

“It’s not something done quietly, it’s very much in the open,” says Yulia Gorbunova.

“It’s counter-terrorism legislation, the main idea of the authors of this legislation is to combat terrorism, and they feel that in that fight they’re justified in stepping over protection of personal space and privacy of internet users.”

What remains to be seen is the extent of compliance on the part of international web giants like Google and Facebook.

Russia has gone so far as to ban the messenger service Telegram for failing to store metadata, disclose decryption keys and use only government-approved encryption tools.