MOSCOW -- Human rights activists were outraged when Russia's KGB successor agency, the FSB, launched a grand project -- code-named SORM -- to spy on its citizens' Internet transmissions. But as if that weren't disturbing enough, last month acting President and ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin gave the Orwellian project a momentous but little-noticed power boost: Now, not only is the long-feared FSB allowed to implement the spy technology and use it at will, but so are seven other federal security agencies, including the tax police and interior ministry police.
The new SORM technology, opponents charge, allows security agencies to bypass the legal requirement to obtain a warrant before monitoring private correspondence, and will put an end to privacy and to the Internet as an instrument of democracy.
It was a significant decision for an acting president's first week in office, and one that may be a sign of where Putin is taking Russia's fledgling democracy.
"This means Russia has officially become a police state," said Yelena Bonner, human rights activist and wife of the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, in a telephone interview from Boston.
The chairman of Citizens' Watch human rights group in St. Petersburg, Boris Pustintsev, called the move "the end of all email privacy."
"It was bad enough that the FSB had unlimited control over confidential correspondence, and now it is multiplied seven times," Pustintsev said. "You can't fight a monster with eight heads."
The 1995 Law on Operational Investigations gave the FSB the authority to monitor all private communications, from postal correspondence to cell-phone calls and electronic mail, provided the security service first obtained a warrant from the court.
SORM, which in Russian stands for System for Operational-Investigative Activities, is a regulation intended to provide the FSB with the technical means to put these monitoring powers into action. According to original drafts of the SORM regulation, Internet service providers themselves are required to foot the bill for the expensive technology and even train FSB officers to use the equipment to spy on their clients.
The regulation requires all ISPs to install a little "black box" rerouting device, and to build a high-speed communications line, which would hot-wire the provider -- and necessarily, all Internet users -- to FSB headquarters.
By rerouting all transmissions in real time to FSB offices, the agency can readily skip the legal obstacle of first obtaining a warrant and gain unfettered access to all communications conducted by clients of Russian ISPs.
In theory, a warrant would be needed to actually read any of the documentation piling up in the FSB's hands. But in practice, critics say, the FSB is unlikely to worry about such legal niceties when the information it wants is just a mouse-click away.
On Jan. 5, after only five days in office, Putin signed an amendment to the Law on Operational Investigations, which gave the tax police, the interior ministry police, Kremlin, parliamentary and presidential security guards, border patrol and customs the same rights as the FSB to monitor, at will, the private correspondence of any and every person residing in Russia's 11 time zones. There are currently some 1.5 million Internet users in Russia.
According to Nailj Murzakhanov, director of Bayard-Slavia Internet provider in Volgograd, the FSB can use SORM to do everything from retrieving and altering email communications to selling company-to-company information to fill the agency's coffers, which haven't prospered under post-Soviet leaders.
Russian special forces have a nasty habit of selling information gathered electronically to the highest bidder, and the information ends up serving political ends. As the Russian daily newspaper Noviye Izvestia noted recently, Internet users are already ironically referring to SORM as "System for Scandalously Unveiling Investigative Materials."
On May 17, 1999, the FSB pulled the plug on Bayard-Slavia's Internet operations because of its directorÕs open refusal to cooperate with SORM. Murzahanov has, to this day, remained the lone provider willing to take a stance against the security service. He is also the only provider to have been shut down over SORM.
The memory of the state's powerful control over the population is still fresh in most minds.
"You remember the KGB, don't you?" said Yury Vdovin, deputy chairman of Citizens' Watch. "They're used to collecting dossiers on citizens, just in case. They collected, collect and will continue to collect information on us," he said.
The same lament over Russia's lack of conscientious objectors comes from Yevgeny Prygov of Krasnodar, who worked for a short time as the coordinator of an official anti-SORM movement with its own web site .
Thanks largely to fear of the FSB, "the movement has been broken," Prygov said in an email interview.
"The crisis in Russia has redefined some of the priorities and the Anti-SORM movement is one of the victims of this process," Prygov continued. "People are thinking about how to stay alive and they forget the value of freedom."
The costs to the Internet service provider are estimated from $10,000 to $30,000, not including any future upgrades. That's enough to shut down some smaller providers, and some SORM-watchers argue that the big Internet players actually welcome SORM as it helps them shore up their market-shares.
The FSB says SORM will help law enforcement track and capture criminals ranging from "tax evaders to pedophiles" because such people may conduct or discuss their business electronically.
"SORM is a normal system for locating criminals and tax evaders. The United States has such a system -- every country does," said Yelena Volchinskaya, a consultant for the State Duma Security Council, which is charged with evaluating the progress of SORM.
The US government does indeed have an email=monitoring program -- and one that also circumvents the courts. The US National Security Agency's Echelon project, though still highly secretive, is reportedly used to monitor and store email and other electronic communications around the world.
Nonetheless, some US Internet and privacy experts find SORM-2 more disquieting than Echelon.
"Echelon and its allied systems in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand take the technology as it finds it -- that is, Echelon is not coercive. It does not rely upon government-mandated surveillance features being built into telecom systems, " said Jim Dempsey, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.
"With SORM-2, Russia is going farther than any other democratic country in controlling the design of private-sector communications systems for surveillance purposes."