Journalists to be under digital surveillance at Sochi

Journalists will be central targets of the extensive surveillance program introduced by Russian authorities in Sochi in connection with the 2014 Winter Olympic Games that begin February 7.

A government decree signed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on November 8, 2013, spelled this out unequivocally. The decree authorizes the government to collect telephone and Internet data of the Games’ organizers, athletes, and others, with particular emphasis on journalists. The latter are mentioned twice in the decree.

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The decree says Russian authorities will be monitoring organizers and participants, including members of the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees, the World Anti-Doping Agency, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, domestic Olympic committees, as well as athletes, team doctors, and technical assistants–even referees. A special clause lists foreign news agencies and media outlets. Another one deals with accredited journalists and photographers.

The decree provides for the creation of a database of telecommunication users–from Internet service subscribers to Wi-Fi users in public locations–complete with their identities. The information contained in those users’ Olympic and Paralympic identity cards will be collected in the database. The database will also contain “data on payments for communications services rendered, including connections, traffic, and subscriber payments.” This is known as gathering metadata in the language of intelligence agencies.

In some ways, metadata gathering is equally dangerous to journalists as classic communication interception, because this method of surveillance allows for easy identification of journalists’ contacts and sources

One curious thing about the Medvedev decree is that it was not classified or passed quietly. The full text of the decree was published in the state newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, on November 13, 2013. It seems this was done as a warning and a deterrent to journalists.

It is clear that protests against human rights abuses related to the Games could become one of the hottest issues in Sochi. The authorities first stated that they would completely ban any protests (Putin signed a decree that did just that in July 2013); then the International Olympic Committee–the Games’ organizer–said protests would be permitted in specially designated zones. That is the wrong solution. Under such circumstances, and with the new decree on wholesale surveillance in place, any contacts between journalists and local activists will be extremely sensitive. Tipping off journalists, including international ones, about protest plans could be interpreted as participation in the rally or providing support for the demonstrators. The metadata gathered on the activists and journalists would make both groups vulnerable to official harassment–particularly local activists and reporters.

With their announcement about gathering metadata during the Games, Russian authorities made clear that all communications would be transparent to the secret services, namely the Federal Security Service (FSB). In addition, the FSB is allowed to keep the data in its possession and analyze it for a three-year period after the Games. According to the Medvedev decree, data collected during the Olympics will be stored for three years and the FSB will be given “round-the-clock remote access” to it. That means the FSB will have plenty of time to explore when, how often, and with whom athletes, judges, and journalists communicated during the Games.

These measures could prompt many journalists to think twice about how they aim to work at the Olympics. It could also have a lasting effect–the idea that a list of all your calls will be stored and carefully analyzed by the Russian secret services is not the most comforting thought. It is important to recall that Russian authorities do not shy away from using visa restrictions against journalists, scholars, and activists whom they believe have not depicted the government in the best light. Since the early 2000s, dozens of foreign journalists and experts have been either refused entry to Russia or expelled from the country. There is no guarantee that the metadata would not be used a long time after the Games to separate journalists loyal to the state from critical ones.

The goal to impose self-censorship on journalists, foreign and domestic, who will arrive in Sochi in February might partly explain the carelessness, and even bravado, with which Russian authorities have treated any criticism about the heavy-handed surveillance measures. When we broke the story about those measures in the Guardian of London in October 2013, the pro-government Voice of Russia responded with a story on its website titled: “Don’t be scared of phone tapping during Sochi-2014, it’s for your own safety.”