“It’s made so that people are afraid to write something”

This week, Important Stories, Mediazona and other publications published investigations into how Roskomnadzor controls internet postings, decides who to list as foreign agents and plans to use neural networks and machine learning. to spy on incidents. This investigation is based on data leaked from the archives of Roskomnadzor’s subsidiary, the Main Radio Frequency Center. The Belarusian hacker group “Cyberpartisans” managed to obtain them in November 2022. Alesya Marokhovskaya, co-author of the Important Stories survey, spoke in an interview with the media about how the material was worked and news things became known.

Daria Davydova: How did the investigation start?

Alesya Marokhovskaya: Guys from [газеты] Süddeutsche Zeitung and said that the Belarusian “cyberpartisans”, who had previously hacked into the Bashkir Roskomnadzor, had already hacked directly into Moscow – the main center [Роскомнадзора]. They said: do you want to watch the leak? – I say: of course! I’m still ok with seeing all the leaks that came in, maybe there are some stories out there. I looked and at first glance I realized that in this leak there were quite a few interesting things to talk about. The entire Important Stories data department worked on it. We divided up the areas that needed to be developed there and sat studying the documents for about 2 weeks.

DD: But in parallel, “cyberpartisan” also appeared in other publications?

AM: Yes, when the Cyber ​​Partisans hacked it and announced it, it was in November, they created a chat, where they added some other journalists. The chat was organized in such a way that you couldn’t see who the other participants were. We joined later than everyone else, it seems.

DD: How did you decide exactly what you were going to investigate?

AM: Since this is Roskomnadzor, this is probably the first leak in which I put my name down for the first time. Usually, when it comes to offshore document leaks, banking transactions or real estate, you type in the names of those responsible. And here I am only the first thing: well, let’s forget, what else does Roskomnadzor have? And as soon as I drive on my behalf, I understand that there are lists of compiled certificates that have not appeared anywhere before. And in these lists there are people who have already been recognized and who have not yet been. [иностранными агентами]. Maybe some are not recognized. That is to say, it was clear that there was already at least this story. Then I saw that they were compiling reports, among them “Monitoring the negative behind the president”, “Monitoring the health of the president”, “Monitoring in the Crimea after the explosion of the bridge”. You open the attachments folder, and in that folder there are other names. You understand that Roskomnadzor monitors the list of certain topics, there are about a hundred of them, on which it reports. In addition, they measure when an important event occurs: for example, the explosion of the Crimean bridge, the start of mobilization. And they try to measure: will it burn – will it not burn? And then you have come across the documentation and understand that this is actually done to send everything to the security forces: to the Attorney General’s Office, to the Presidential Administration, to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, to the FSB, to the FSO, to the National Guard.

They send these reports to all these organizations so that they can react quickly. In general, Roskomnadzor is a rather sloppy agency. Everything we’ve seen, on the one hand, is pretty scary, as they engage in outright censorship and branding people as “foreign agents.” On the other hand, they are super inefficient. Thank goodness they’re slobs in there! These reports are compiled so that in the future the authorities can react quickly: come on site, issue some kind of statement, slow down with some kind of future announcement that might excite someone in Russia and people will come out to protest.

From this leak, it became clear that the 2012 protests were an extremely painful subject for the authorities. Like the protests after [расследования ФБК] “He’s not Dimon for you.”

All their wet fantasies about hiring neural networks, artificial intelligence and machine learning for Roskomnadzor are just trying to predict possible scenarios so that it doesn’t explode, like after the investigation “It’s not Dimon for you”. Now, any protest activity that begins on the Internet with comments, messages and posts by a journalist can lead to activity on the streets, which is now extremely unprofitable for the authorities, it is very dangerous for them.

Another topic is the development of additional software to organize global monitoring with predictions on the Internet. It immediately became clear that we have at least three directions. As a result, we got three texts. One is dedicated to the fact that Roskomnadzor is trying to implement neural networks and machine learning. Although they mainly work with pens and don’t cover everything, the management is not very happy with it. There is a text with a cleaning of the information field, regarding foreign agents, spying on specific people, blocking giants, how they participate in information campaigns, for example in the case of Yuri Dmitriev. And, of course, those reports: how they control the calendar and where they send it.

DD: The documents that were given to you date from 2020-2022. When did they start following all this?

AM: Among the documents given to us, there are also very old ones – from 2016 – but they are very few. We can’t say exactly when they started monitoring. Most likely, the leak is incomplete. I know for sure that, for example, I was recognized as a foreign agent, I filed a complaint with the Ministry of Justice to withdraw this status for me. And in court, they were obliged to provide me with documents explaining why I was recognized as a foreign agent. I saw my certificate from Roskomnadzor, but it was not in the database. I was on the lists that this certificate was drawn up for me, I saw it in court, but it is not in the database.

And for other people who have been recognized as foreign agents, they must have this certificate. Therefore, the leak is unfortunate. It is possible that part of the documents was stored where Belarusian “cyberpartisans” could not get access. Therefore, we see gaps in reporting there. At some point they disappeared, then appeared, but in a different format. We can only assume that they probably didn’t force them to launch a new format and then come back again. But we see that as of 2020 they definitely are.

DD: What new things have you managed to find out about how the Russian state monitors people?

AM: All of this is done for the purpose of global surveillance and censorship, so that people are afraid to write something. On the one hand, the obvious answer is: if you don’t want to get caught, don’t write. On the other hand, self-censorship for many people is not self-respect. It is clear that even without all these programs that will monitor everything, even without this, in fact, any Russian is simply always at risk. Any of his words, if anyone needs it or if anyone misunderstands it, can be read in such a way that it will be worse than just entering Vepr’s stats [один из сервисов, которые РКН разрабатывает для контроля за Интернетом] – up to criminal penalties, imprisonment and heavy fines.

You need to know how it all works. And then draw conclusions. Are you comfortable being invisible on the internet to censorship agencies? “Then don’t write. If your conscience worries you about this, and it seems important to you to speak – Write! Just know that this is how it works.