Kremlin looks to avert damaging investigations by classifying sensitive data

Russia’s security agency, the FSB, has said anyone caught ‘collecting information’ in 61 categories risked being declared a ‘foreign agent.’

Oliver Carroll@olliecarroll
Wednesday 21 July 2021 10:06
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<p>FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov</p>

FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov

Undermined for years by embarrassing revelations into supposedly secret operations, the Kremlin has moved to firewall large swathes of data broadly related to the military, high-tech and space industries.

Late on Monday, the FSB, Russia’s security agency, announced anyone caught "collecting information" in 61 categories risked being declared a "foreign agent." The list of newly no-go data includes anything from information on troop sizes and movements, to strategic military forecasts and development problems in Roscosmos, Russia’s state aerospace corporation.

The directive follows on from a December 2020 law that requires individuals to self-identify as "foreign agents" — or face fines and five year jail terms.

It classifies information relating to the "legal, moral and psychological issues" in the armed forces; details about procurement of goods and services in the army; and any data about nuclear space energy.

Special mention is made of the personal data of military officials and their families. This would appear to add a new level of protection against the sale of sensitive phone and other data records on the black market.

The widespread practice of corrupt officials providing such data — probiv as it is known in Russian — provided crucial pieces of an investigative jigsaw that linked the Kremlin’s agents to the attempted operation to assassinate opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

And critics say the new FSB directive is designed to criminalise legitimate journalistic research more broadly.

Ruslan Leviev, whose CIT (Conflict Intelligence Team) have since 2014 monitored and verified Russia’s shadow operations in Syria and Ukraine, said the data clampdown was an "expected" development from a regime intent on stamping out opposition.

"We understand our working conditions can only deteriorate," he told The Independent. "They have a new legal weapon to use against us, but one more, one less, it’s of little difference. We’ve been working with such threats hanging over us for a long time."

The Kremlin’s foreign agent law identifies three types of "foreign agent" adversaries: media who receive funding from abroad; those who distribute the information contained in such media; and those who collect "military information" to the benefit of undefined foreign entities.

The law has already been used to controversial effect against independent media resources, rendering some of them economically inviable, as advertisers balked at association.

Until recently, the law had not been applied to individuals. That changed last week when authorities designated Roman Badanin, the editor in chief of Proyekt, a muckraking outlet exposing elite corruption, along with four of his journalists.

Foreign media and diplomats are not — as of yet — obliged to register as foreign agents. The law does, however, make a special provision for foreign journalists deemed to do something "incompatible with professional journalistic activity."

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