- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Russian government has reportedly offered to provide its own surveillance equipment to the nation’s telephone companies, potentially saving businesses billions of dollars that would otherwise be spent towards complying with anti-terror legislation signed last month by President Vladimir Putin.

Vedomosti, a Moscow-based newspaper, reported Wednesday that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) may offer phone companies the use of the government’s already-existing wiretap systems so they can satisfy the new law’s requirements once the measure take effect in 2018.

Citing sources familiar with the arrangement, the former KGB may provide telecoms with access to SORM, or System for Operative Investigative Activities, currently being used by the government for its eavesdropping efforts.

The Russian government has used its SORM system to monitor the phone habits of targeted citizens since 1996, and the technology is able to record user traffic for up to 12 hours at a time. If offered to telecoms as reported, companies may be able to avoid purchasing new state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, the likes of which was expected to cost some service providers well beyond their annual revenue.

Included within the comprehensive package signed by Mr. Putin is a measure requiring Russian telecoms to store their customers’ conversations for six months at a time, as well as keep records about those calls for upwards of three years. Coupled with a similar provision requiring internet providers to log and store the online activities of their customers, industry experts have predicted that the cost of compliance could amount to as much as $33.8 billion — or around 19-times the taxable profit earned annually by MTS, Russia’s largest mobile phone service provider.

Sergey Soldatenkov, the CEO of competing company Megafon, said previously that he would have to spend around $3 billion annually to implement infrastructure upgrades capable of collecting customer data as required under the law, calling the government’s demands “impossible” to adhere to during an interview last month with the Kommersant newspaper.

If the FSB elects to offer its services to Russian telecoms, then companies may very well be off the hook to the tune of billions of dollars annually. Because SORM is currently only capable of collecting call records for 12 hours at a time, however, changes to the system’s memory buffer will reportedly have to be made in order to keep records for the duration demanded by the government.

According to Vedomosti, the cost of those changes will likely fall on the phone companies who would otherwise have to implement systems of their own. Additionally, new mechanisms will need to be developed and deployed to ensure telecoms are able to record and keep conversations of their customers’ phone conversations — a feature the SORM system is currently incapable of performing.

Senator Lyudmila Bokova said lawmakers are indeed discussing the possibility of using the existing SORM system for conducting new sorts of surveillance, and that authorities hope additional equipment will be Russian-made, the Moscow Times reported

The anti-terror package signed last month by Mr. Putin is expected to go into effect starting July 1, 2018, at which point telephone companies and internet providers will be required to store conversations, emails and other interactions for a minimum of six months. Authorities have until Sept. 1 to let Mr. Putin know if Russian manufacturers will be able to provide the required equipment, the paper added. 

On Tuesday, meanwhile, hundreds of citizens protested the legislation during a demonstration in Russia’s capital city, Reuters reported.

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