Four days into the war in Ukraine, Russia’s expansive surveillance and censorship apparatus was already hard at work.
Roughly 800 miles east of Moscow, authorities in the Republic of Bashkortostan, one of Russia’s 85 regions, were busy tabulating the mood of comments in social media messages. They marked down YouTube posts that they said criticized the Russian government. They noted the reaction to a local protest.
Then they compiled their findings. One report about the “destabilization of Russian society” pointed to an editorial from a news site deemed “oppositional” to the government that said President Vladimir V. Putin was pursuing his own self-interest by invading Ukraine. A dossier elsewhere on file detailed who owned the site and where they lived.
Another Feb. 28 dispatch, titled “Presence of Protest Moods,” warned that some had expressed support for demonstrators and “spoke about the need to stop the war.”
The report was among nearly 160,000 records from the Bashkortostan office of Russia’s powerful internet regulator, Roskomnadzor.
Together the documents detail the inner workings of a critical facet of Mr. Putin’s surveillance and censorship system, which his government uses to find and track opponents, squash dissent and suppress independent information even in the country’s furthest reaches.
The leak of the agency’s documents “is just like a small keyhole look into the actual scale of the censorship and internet surveillance in Russia,” said Leonid Volkov, who is named in the records and is the chief of staff for the jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny.
“It’s much bigger,” he said.
Roskomnadzor’s activities have catapulted Russia, along with authoritarian countries like China and Iran, to the forefront of nations that aggressively use technology as a tool of repression. Since the agency was established in 2008, Mr. Putin has turned it into an essential lever to tighten his grip on power as he has transformed Russia into an even more authoritarian state.
The internet regulator is part of a larger tech apparatus that Mr. Putin has built over the years, which also includes a domestic spying system that intercepts phone calls and internet traffic, online disinformation campaigns and the hacking of other nations’ government systems. [Continue reading…]