How Russia’s online spying regime will monitor every aspect of the Olympics

Russia's Sorm is "PRISM on steroids."


Curt Hopkins

Internet Culture

Published Oct 7, 2013   Updated Jun 1, 2021, 4:50 am CDT

In preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Russian spy agency FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, has instituted an Internet snooping regime that should make the NSA look like the Children’s Television Workshop. 

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Russia was awarded the Winter Olympics back in 2007, to be located in Sochi, a city on the Black Sea in an area of the Caucasus that has seen a great deal of Islamic separatist activity. And just as contracts were awarded to Russian companies to build out the area’s infrastructure and sports facilities, the FSB was given the role of providing security. 

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But the FSB officer charged with overseeing that security has had no anti-terrorism experience, notes the Guardian. Instead, his career in the KGB and then the FSB has been “hunting down foreign spies.” 

Russian president Vladimir Putin, it should be noted, came up through the old KGB, and many aspects of his reign are characterized by a security mentality. 

The Guardian has obtained a September 2010 FSB presentation about security in Sochi. The presentation, mostly about cyber threats, also said that Russia’s communications interception system, called Sorm, should be “significantly updated” in the Sochi area and that this update should be conducted in secret. 

Additionally, two Russian journalists, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, have combed through the documents on a Russian government procurement website, along with public documents to uncover the use of Sorm to scrutinize the electronic communication of every athlete, attendee, journalist, and support worker visiting the city for the games. They have done this researching in conjunction with the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab, which, as its director Ron Deibert told the Daily Dot, “collaborate(s) with them on research and analysis on an ongoing basis and as part of a long-standing partnership with Privacy International.” 

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They have discovered that significant modification of telephone and Wi-Fi systems in the area have been made. 

Deibert said Sorm was “PRISM on steroids,” referring to the most famous of the U.S. Internet surveillance programs revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.  

“Essentially,” he said, Sorm is “surveillance by design, allowing the FSB to tap directly into ISPs, telecoms, etc., without having to engage with the operators of those services and using a one-time only warrant.” 

“In the Russian system,” he told the Guardian, “permanent access for Sorm is a requirement of building the infrastructure.”

Sorm was developed by a KGB research institute in the ‘80s. The current Sorm-1 system intercepts telephone and mobile phone communications, Sorm-2 handles Internet traffic, and Sorm-3 stores “all information and data on subscribers, including actual recordings and locations.”

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In Sochi, ISPs are being required to install a tool called “Omega,” with several having been fined for not doing so. The regulations the FSB published for ISPs governing Sorm explicitly note that Gmail and Yahoo Mail will be intercepted. 

These security measures are not restricted to the online world. There are to be 40,000 police on the ground during the Olympics, 5,000 cameras in public areas, and surveillance drones conducting flyovers. Only “accredited” vehicles will be allowed into the city, and all protests will be deemed illegal, both during and before the Olympics. 

H/T Guardian | Photo by grofjardanhazy/Flickr

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*First Published: Oct 7, 2013, 12:20 pm CDT