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Should Europe be worried by Russia’s spying resurgence?

© AFP (file photo)

Text by Sam BALL

Latest update : 2013-10-25

The revelations of the NSA’s surveillance programme have dominated the headlines in recent months. But Europe could also be at risk from a resurgence in Russian spying activity, according to intelligence experts.

As the fallout from the latest revelations over the surveillance activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) tests diplomatic ties between Washington and allies including France and Germany, should Europe also be worried about a rise in Russian espionage?

French daily Le Figaro reported Friday that, according to intelligence experts and diplomats, Russia’s intelligence agencies have stepped up their activity under President Vladimir Putin to a level not seen since the height of the Cold War.

Russian intelligence is particularly active in the former Soviet republics, especially those with an eye to joining the EU or NATO, a diplomat posted in the region told the newspaper.

“In Georgia, officers of the [former] KGB have been placed in security structures,” said the diplomat. “In Ukraine and Belarus, the penetration of Russian intelligence services is very deep - local KGB are controlled by Moscow.”

But the effects of a reinvigorated Russian intelligence operation have also been felt further west. Indeed, in Brussels, home to the headquarters of NATO and the EU, officials from several eastern European countries, especially Hungary and Bulgaria, have recently been quietly removed because they were working for Russia, a European diplomat told Le Figaro.

Allegations of harassment and assassinations

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and with it the end of the KGB, Russia’s intelligence operations went through a period of dormancy.

But Putin, himself a former KGB officer, has sought to strengthen the organisation’s successor agencies, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence service (SVR), since coming to power in 2000.

Recent years have also seen a number of high-profile cases of alleged Russian espionage activity in the West. These include the assassination of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with polonium in London in 2006, as well as claims of harassment by FSB operatives of foreign journalists and diplomats.

And just this week, the FBI opened an investigation into Yury Zaitsev, the head of a Russian government-run cultural exchange programme based in Washington, over allegations he tried to recruit young Americans as intelligence assets.

Russia taking inspiration from the NSA?

But it is in the area of electronic surveillance that Russia now seems to be focusing its espionage efforts.

"They have kept a real expertise in electronic eavesdropping," an unnamed intelligence expert told Le Figaro.

Russia already has its own version of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance programme, known as SORM, that allows intelligence services to monitor internet traffic but, as yet, does not require providers to record information

However, in the wake of the NSA revelations and Russia’s decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum, Russian authorities seem to have been inspired to emulate their American counterparts by further bolstering the country’s electronic surveillance operations.

Russian daily Kommersant reported earlier this week that under an order drafted by the Communications Ministry, internet providers would have to install equipment that would record and save all web traffic for at least 12 hours and grant the security services exclusive access to the data.

If implemented, the order would give the FSB access to stored data including phone numbers, IP addresses, account names, social network activity and e-mail addresses.

‘PRISM on steroids’

Furthermore, an investigation by two Russian journalists, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, in conjunction with the UK’s Guardian newspaper revealed earlier this month that the FSB is planning to launch an extensive surveillance operation at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The operation will provide security services with near total access to the electronic communications of both spectators and athletes at the Games.

Major amendments have been made to telephone and Wi-Fi networks in the region to allow for easier monitoring by SORM, the journalists’ investigation revealed.

Furthermore, SORM will be upgraded with a controversial technology known as deep packet inspection (DPI), which allows intelligence agencies to filter content by particular keywords.

Ron Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto and director of Citizen Lab, which co-operated with the Sochi research, told the Guardian that the upgrades to SORM will see the surveillance programme resemble "PRISM on steroids”.

"The scope and scale of Russian surveillance are similar to the disclosures about the US programme,” he said.

Date created : 2013-10-25


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