Street Life: Samotechny Lane, Moscow - Cyber-snoops threaten Russia's new 'praivesi'

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The Independent Online
IT WAS just like in the good old, bad old days. We sat around the kitchen table and talked about the secret police. Only it was a cyber kitchen table that brought together speakers from Moscow, Ryazan and the Russian Far East. For our discussion on the latest threat to constitutional rights, we were using the Internet.

It has emerged this summer that the Federal Security Service (FSB) plans to bug the Net. Just as the old KGB used to listen in to telephone conversations, so its successor intends to eavesdrop on e-mails and monitor visits to websites.

In Soviet times, Russians would postpone conversations on sensitive subjects with the catch phrase: "This is not a topic for the telephone." Soon, it seems, they will be saying: "This is not a matter for the Net."

Russia today often reminds me of a sci-fi film in whichmedieval and futuristic mingle. In homes that lack hot water you will find people with expensive computers. Public servants still push paper and use the abacus, yet among some private individuals there is a degree of computer literacy as great as, if not greater than, in the West.

The Russian computer community is up in arms about the FSB plan to invade "praivesi", a new concept in this collectively minded country, hence the borrowing from English. The epicentre of the campaign against an upgraded Big Brother is the home of Anatoly Levenchuk, a chemist-turned-computer programmer-turned- economic researcher and public relations expert. He it was who first got hold of the FSB's draft plan and exposed it in on the Net.

We could have met in one of a number of computer cafes that have sprung up in Moscow. But that is not really the Russian way. Russians prefer to offer their legendary hospitality in their own homes, in the trusted circle of family and close friends around the kitchen table.

Anatoly lives on Young Leninists' Street in the working-class suburb of Kuzminki. He served me soup in a kitchen where there was barely room to swing a mouse, let alone a cat. On his table was a Fujitsu 900 notebook, worth $4,600.

In fine Russian intellectual tradition, our discussion began with a definition of terms. Anatoly objected to me speaking of the "Russian computer community". "Where have you been all these years?" he asked. "You would not talk about a 'community of people with telephones or fridges, a club of people who use pens'. The computer is just an instrument to communicate with those with whom you have something in common."

Point taken. Russian computer users, then, are campaigning against an FSB plan: but Anatoly also objected to the word "campaign". He does not see himself as an "activist" or a "dissident" but as the "moderator" of a sophisticated discussion about freedom to surf without interference from SORM.

This is the name of the system the FSB plans to install. In Russian, the letters stand for "System for Facilitating Investigative Searches". Providers will be asked to put a "black box" or snooping device in their main computers and build a high-speed link to channel data to the Lubyanka.

"The dictator always makes the victim dig his own grave," said Anatoly. "The providers will be threatened with the prospect of losing their licences if they do not co-operate, and, of course, the cost of building the system will be passed on to users."

The FSB, which presumably wants to bug the Net to catch tax-evaders and other criminals, can already monitor mobile telephones and pagers - but only with the sanction of a court, Russia now being a democracy. But critics of SORM say it will amount to blanket eavesdropping, and violate citizens' constitutional rights.

Anatoly clicked on his screen (kliknut: vb. to click, another word that has entered the Russian language) and called up the latest of dozens of letters about SORM coming in from concerned computer users all over Russia and beyond.

Anatoly also has a page to which the more artistically inclined have been contributing banners for a cyber demonstration. "Tomorrow the FSB will be laughing at your personal mail," read one, while another, in reference to George Orwell's novel, said: "They didn't manage it in 1984. Maybe they'll pull it off in 1998."

My favourite was a mock plea from the FSB: "Write more slowly please, we can't keep up."

Certainly, the Internet is so vast and fast that the security services will find it very difficult to follow everything. "They shouldn't even try. They should change their mentality," said Anatoly, who himself is now considering founding Russia's first Freedom Party.

Join the kitchen table discussion in English on: libertarium/ehomepage.html

or in Russian on: libertarium