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Here's What Putin Didn't Tell Snowden About Russia's Spying

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who appears not to have told the whole story about his nation's surveillance programs.
Alexei Nikolsky
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who appears not to have told the whole story about his nation's surveillance programs.

"Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?" former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden asked Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

"We don't have a mass system of such interception, and according to our law it cannot exist," the Russian leader responded.

Well, as NPR's Tom Gjelten tweets, the bipartisan Center for Strategic & International Studies has now provided "an actual answer" to Snowden's query.

Here are some excerpts from what the center posted today:

"Three programs, SORM-1, SORM-2, and SORM-3, provide the foundation of Russian mass communications surveillance. Russian law gives Russia's security service, the FSB, the authority to use SORM ('System for Operative Investigative Activities') to collect, analyze and store all data that [are] transmitted or received on Russian networks, including calls, email, website visits and credit card transactions. ...

"Russian law requires all Internet service providers to install an FSB monitoring device (called 'Punkt Upravlenia') on their networks that allows the direct collection of traffic without the knowledge or cooperation of the service provider. ...

"Collection requires a court order, but these are secret and not shown to the service provider. According to the data published by Russia's Supreme Court, almost 540,000 intercepts of phone and internet traffic were authorized in 2012. ...

"SORM is routinely used against political opponents and human rights activists to monitor them and to collect information to use against them in 'dirty tricks' campaigns. Russian courts have upheld the FSB's authority to surveil political opponents even if they have committed no crime. ..."

For his part, Snowden wrote in The Guardian on Friday that Putin's response was "suspiciously narrow" and that the Russian leader "dodged" the issue of whether a mass surveillance program is morally justified. As for Putin's claim that there is no Russian mass surveillance program, Snowden says:

"Others have pointed out that Putin's response appears to be the strongest denial of involvement in mass surveillance ever given by a Russian leader — a denial that is, generously speaking, likely to be revisited by journalists.

"In fact, Putin's response was remarkably similar to Barack Obama's initial, sweeping denials of the scope of the NSA's domestic surveillance programs, before that position was later shown to be both untrue and indefensible."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.