How Crimea Became a Testing Ground for Russia’s Surveillance Technology
15 September, 2017

Disputed territories and “frozen conflict” zones often become hotspots for corruption, smuggling, and lawlessness. Where states do not formally exist, it is easy to “get away with” crime.

But that isn’t necessarily the case in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Since being annexed by Russia, it has increasingly become the testing ground for Russian law enforcement’s extensive surveillance capabilities.

The FSB created a system of control for residents of the Russian Federation, Crimeans and foreign visitors to Russia. Photo Credit: Anton Naumlyuk/RFE/RL

The Agora international human rights organization carried out an investigation into how the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is stepping up control over the residents of Crimea, as well as over Russians and foreigners traveling to Russia.

According to Agora’s research, the FSB can access any information, including plane and train ticket purchases, deleted messages on social media, and even drafts of those messages. Meanwhile, residents of the Russian-occupied Crimea are being forced to submit fingerprints, DNA samples, and voice recording samples. The research also suggests that these policies are being implemented in a discriminatory manner.

Big Brother Knows

The FSB has the highest authority among Russian security agencies. When the agency targets a person, it can harvest a lot of information about them, says Damir Gainutdinov, one of the authors of the study “Russia Under Surveillance – 2017.” Besides passport data, the FSB will know all about the individual’s bank accounts, the movement of funds through these accounts, phone calls and emails, whether he or she has purchased plane or train tickets, and which hotels the target has checked into.

Damir Gainutdinov, co-author of the study “Russia Under Surveillance – 2017”


“Big Brother is watching, of course,” Gainutdinov says. “One thing that makes it less bad for Russians is the so-called negligence and [the government’s] lack of funds. On the state level, a lot of methods for surveilling have been developed, but many of them are not actually being used. Some of them are reserved for emergencies.”

But with the adoption of the “Yarovaya package,” a series of strict anti-terrorist laws in Russia, the internet has grown much less secure. According to an expert from the Agora organization, who asked not to be named, the law requires Russian telephone and internet service providers to record and preserve people’s phone and text conversations, as well as their browsing history. And that includes message drafts, too.

“For instance, you wanted to write something bad on [Russian social network] VKontakte, started typing it, and then changed your mind and deleted it,” the expert from Agora says. “But it’s too late! This text has already been obtained and will be stored for six months...[Russian search engine] Yandex search queries, for example, as well as your website [browsing] history and the IP addresses you connected with, are stored for three years.”

According to Agora, the Crimean annexation brought the peninsula’s residents into a state structure where surveillance is much more extensive.

In Russian-occupied Crimea, the Yarovaya laws are used with a special gusto: some people have even been prosecuted for the VKontakte posts they deleted long ago. The investigators still manage to restore the posts and use them as evidence in court.   

Remzi Bekirov (right), archival photo. Photo Credit: Remzi Bekirov

That’s what happened to Crimean Tatar activists Remzi Bekirov. He was jailed for three days in March 2017 for posting “extremist materials” on VKontakte. The occupation authorities were able to access these posts despite the fact that Bekirov had deleted them along with his entire VKontakte account.  

Control Without Control

Despite its extensive surveillance capabilities, the FSB must adhere — at least formally — to some laws. Permission to monitor, listen, or otherwise collect information should be granted by a court. But according to statistics gathered by the study authors, the Russian courts tend to see eye-to-eye with the FSB. Over the last ten years, the courts granted the FSB the right to surveil in 98.35% of all cases.

And that’s only when the FSB asked permission. The actual scale of monitoring is difficult to assess.

“Permits [for surveillance] are issued for a certain period and for certain people. But the court can’t check how they will be used in the future,” Gainutdinov says. “There is no doubt that, in reality, the number of cases of ‘listening in’ is much higher.”

The FSB only needs to obtain a judicial decision when the results of the monitoring will be used as official material in a criminal case, he adds. In most cases, surveillance is used for operational work only.

To this end, the FSB can make use of SORM — or “The System for Operational Investigative Activities” — an expansive surveillance system for monitoring telephone and internet communications. Developed in 1995, SORM allows broad monitoring of telecommunications.

“SORM is arranged in such a way that an FSB employee who has to formally obtain a court permit is not obliged to show it to anyone,” Gainutdinov says. “It is actually impossible to control whether [the FSB] listened to someone’s [conversation] or not…[E]ven the communications operator doesn’t know, he just provides them with a dedicated channel.”

These technologies allowed the FSB to target Ukrainian journalist Mykola Semena in Crimea. Initially, they carried out operational investigative activities against him on suspicion of treason. The FSB installed secret surveillance cameras behind the journalist’s office and got access to all his bank statements.

Crimean journalist and political prisoner Mykola Semena. Photo Credit: Alyna Cmutko/ (RFE/RL)

Later, they gained remote access to Semena’s computer and not only intercepted his web traffic, but also took screenshots of his monitor while he was writing his articles.

However, they failed to accuse Semena of treason against the Russian state — he did not have access to secret information or the kind of political or military authority that would allow him to harm the country. The FSB was forced to halt the operation. However, a few months later, the security agency gathered all the previously harvested materials and “sewed” them together into a new criminal charge against Semena — extremism.

During the pretrial investigation and the court case, clear legal violations by the FSB came to light. As Semena’s lawyer, Aleksandr Popkov, told Hromadske, “he was being wiretapped before they got permission.”

“We later found out that the FSB operatives carried out the investigator’s orders before the investigator even issued them. So they did it with foresight,” he says. “And the documents they prepared with authorization and instructions were from the future — from four days later. So roughly speaking, the order was carried out on April 14, with the certificates attached to it dated April 18, but the investigator issued instructions to carry it out the next day.”

During Semena’s interrogation, the presiding FSB officer was very indirect, Popkov says. He didn’t answer half the questions, but clearly stated that no treason case had been opened against the journalist.

“Then what right did they have to use materials obtained not-so-legally in a case regarding a completely different law?” he asks.


Perhaps one of the reasons that Crimea has become such a training ground for the FSB is that Russian law does not always extend to the occupied peninsula. In part, this is because Crimeans themselves are not always acquainted with their rights under the de-facto Russian legal code. But the largest factor is simply the actions of the security agencies.

The FSB’s regular “raids” in Crimea provide a clear example of these practices. On several occasions, the police have simply blocked off a market or restaurant and detained all the staff and vendors. These people were then taken to the local office of Russia’s Main Directorate for Countering Extremism, also known as the E-Center.

Crimea has become a veritable training ground for the Russian FSB (pictured: searches by the FSB and Russian security forces in Bakhchisarayi, Crimea on May 12, 2016). Photo Credit: screenshot from Hromadske video

There, under the FSB’s watchful eye, the people were forced to give fingerprints and sometimes footprints, record audio samples of their voices or videos of their movements, or give saliva samples to register their DNA. According to Russian and Crimean lawyers, these are unlawful demands, because these people were not arrested or tried, and they did not violate the law.

The majority of victims of these arbitrary detentions are Muslims, Crimean Tatars, and other non-Slavic people. According to Agora, cases of similar mass round-ups have only been recorded in Chechnya.

So far, it appears Crimea is the only place where the FSB and the police departments are gathering biometric data in mass. The concern is that, after implementing this practice in one largely isolated region, it could be extended to other parts of the country.

In February 2014, after the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, clashes erupted between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters in Crimea. On February 27, Russian special forces, dressed in unmarked green uniforms, began seizing control over key government buildings in the peninsula. While the Crimean parliament building was occupied, the parliamentarians voted — some at gunpoint — to terminate the Crimean government and schedule a referendum on Crimean independence. The illegal referendum was held on March 16 to broad international condemnation. Around 95 percent of participating voters reportedly cast their ballots for independence, according to the peninsula’s separatist officials. Three days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Crimean separatist leaders signed a draft treaty admitting Crimea into the Russian Federation. The treaty was subsequently ratified by the Russian legislature.

/By Max Koshelev

/Translated and adapted by Eilish Hart and Maria Romanenko