Under surveillance in Russia

How and why Russia has been intensifying surveillance of activists, journalists and opposition figures.

People commemorate Russian opposition politician Nemtsov on first anniversary of his murder in Moscow
Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was under surveillance before he was shot dead near the Kremlin in Moscow on February 27, 2015 [Reuters]

Towards the end of September, I received a few emails from Google informing me that someone tried to break into my email. It was not the first time I had received messages like that, so the first thing I did was check the email address from which they were sent.

Users who are not careful might miss the fact that these email addresses only vaguely look like real ones: one email came from no-reply@accounts.google.com.mail.com, and another from: no-reply@accounts.google.com.yandex.com. The links in the emails led to phishing websites made to look like Gmail and if I had put my password there, hackers would have gained control over my email.

In late September and early October, dozens of other Russian journalists, activists and workers in NGOs such as Transparency International received similar phishing emails. This is the biggest wave of hacking attacks on dissidents in Russia so far, but by far not the first one.

Government-backed hacking

I have been encountering such phishing emails since 2014 and it is not a secret who is behind them. Back then in 2014, the hacking group which was behind such attempts was known as Pawn Storm; today after the attacks on the servers of the US State Department, this group has become known as Fancy Bear.

Just in case, I sent the emails to four different organisations dealing with cyber security and they confirmed that they originated from Fancy Bear/Pawn Storm.

This is the group that regularly attacks people and institutions of interest to the Kremlin: from Russian opposition politicians and journalists, to NATO and US political organisations.

Even the support services of Gmail think that there are connections between these hackers and the government. They sent me and other journalists a warning that our emails have been targeted by “state-sponsored attackers”.

They are attacking not just email accounts, but also various messengers. For example, the Telegram accounts of two Russian activists – Grigory Alburov and Oleg Kozlovski – were hacked. The perpetrators managed to break in by intercepting the SMS confirmation sent through the mobile operator.

Some internet companies have also actively been cooperating with the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the General Administration for Combating Extremism.

Those companies who do not cooperate with the FSB start facing problems. It was resistance to the FSB demanding access to the social networking site Vkontakte that resulted in its founder, the Russian businessman Pavel Durov, leaving his post as chief executive of his company and departing from Russia for good.

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He lost his company, but he did gain quite a reputation. That’s why many Russian and other opposition activists and journalists use his encrypted messenger, Telegram, which you can use to avoid getting hacked by choosing the double authentication setting.

We have long got used to the idea that our emails are being read, our phone conversations tapped, and our finances and travels abroad followed. That’s why with every passing year, journalists, activists and NGO workers are getting more and more informed about questions of cyber security.

Instead of a regular phone, we use the app Signal; instead of regular SMS, we use Telegram; we buy plane tickets at the last minute; and we always think of which photo we should and should not post on social media.

The long shadow of surveillance

Members of the political opposition often get stopped at the border; usually they just get interrogated, but sometimes it goes beyond that. For example, in the case of one activist who was going to a conference abroad, a page was ripped from his passport, which invalidated it and he couldn’t travel.

I was on a watch list for a while. It would happen that during a regular train ride, I would be approached and taken to a local police station for a “preventative chat”. It would be a completely meaningless action whose only purpose was to make me understand: “We are watching you closely.”

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But these days, state surveillance has been expanding beyond spying on the usual suspects. Most recently, under the guise of a sociological study, a survey was carried out in Russian universities to probe protest activity and readiness. The organiser of the survey admitted that the information on all students who showed opposition attitudes were submitted to the authorities.

The state is not even trying to hide the extensive surveillance over its citizens. State TV and websites regularly release “leaks” discrediting public figures; they are usually obtained through email hacks, phone tapping and hidden cameras, like in the case of the sex tape of the leader of PARNAS Party Mikhail Kasyanov – which was shot without his knowledge.

Sometimes these “leaks” contain genuine information, sometimes they are fabricated and sometimes both.

For the first time since Putin came to power, the standard of living in Russia has started to deteriorate due to the drop in oil prices.


The latter happened with opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose financial documents were published online by hackers. But before posting on the internet, hackers changed some of the information to make it look like he gets money from the Soros Foundation.

Sometimes the purpose of these hacking attacks is not to discredit, but to get inside information. For example, after the phishing attack in 2014, many activists from the “Solidarnost” political movement found out that their email accounts had been set up to forward their correspondence to an unknown email address.

They noticed the hack by chance and it is possible that there are some people who still do not know that their emails are being forwarded to someone else. This is a much faster way to obtain information than setting up surveillance and wire-tapping.

Naturally, the latter methods are still used. Those activists and journalists, who the Kremlin finds particularly unpleasant – like those who cooperate with exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky – often notice that they are followed in the streets.

The authorities also don’t necessarily hide the fact that they follow activists. Perhaps the goal is to scare just them. After all, not everyone is ready to continue work under such pressure.

Of course, the good old snitching methods are also being used, and opposition movements and parties often find informers within their ranks. Some have even found “bugs” in their offices, as was the case with the Navalny’s anti-corruption fund.

This type of surveillance tells the opposition figure (or the journalist) that he is a person of interest. Everyone knows what this means. In the best case scenario, you could be thrown in jail; in the worst – you would end up like Boris Nemtsov – shot dead in the streets of Moscow.Unsurprisingly Nemtsov’s phone was also tapped and tapes were published in pro-Kremlin publications before his murder.

People don’t feel safe – even abroad. Recently, a number of Russian dissidents living abroad have faced the same set-up. Some individuals in their host countries complain to the local authorities about them, accusing them of paedophilia or possessing child pornography and so the local authorities start an investigation. Even if the accusation is not confirmed, the individual is discredited. This is what happened with the dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who was supposed to give testimony in the Alexander  Litvinenko murder case.

The Kremlin’s fears

All these instruments – following, threatening and campaigns for discrediting – are typical of the Soviet times and, of course, they are well-known to Vladimir Putin as a former KGB agent.

But why is it specifically in the past few years that we see this intense activity of the secret services in controlling public sentiments?


The reasons are several and the main one is economics. For the first time since Putin came to power, the standard of living in Russia has started to deteriorate due to the drop in oil prices. Sanctions are exacerbating the situation.

According to the official statistics, the number of people living under the poverty line has increased over the past year and a half to 23 million people, while the proportion of the population which spends all of their money for food has almost doubled from 22 percent to 41 percent.

Some commentators have objected, saying that not everything is “so bad” since there are no mass protests. Regardless of that, the state over the past few years has done everything to rein in independent media and political movements.

It seems all this surveillance and intimidation is working quite well.

Roman Dobrokhotov is a Moscow-based journalist and civil activist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Insider.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.