The Russian government is already working on its own version of the internet. Now, it may be preparing to deploy its own customized spyware applications as a mandatory component of the service. The Russian Parliament is debating a bill that would require all electronic equipment sold in Russia to carry specific Russian apps and services. The bill would apply to all electronic equipment in specific device categories, like smart TVs, computers, and smartphones.
The goal of the bill is to “protect the interests of Russian Internet companies and will reduce the abuse by large foreign companies, working in the field of information technology,” ZDNet reports. If the bill passes, the Russian government will publish a list of electronic devices expected to be covered, along with a list of software that must be preloaded on them. Vendors that refuse to comply will be subject to repeated fines and eventually banned.
The official explanation for this is that Russia wants to protect its local tech scene and foster Russian technical competitiveness. There may well be truth to this. Russia does not view itself as particularly aligned with the West’s vision of governance or internet governance and it may indeed wish to feed the distinctive Russian nature of its own tech industry. Forcing Western companies to ship Russian software will undoubtedly boost software revenues.
Of course, the Russian government also might be mandating the installation of certain software so it can backdoor these applications and be guaranteed full access to the underlying device. Then again, it’s not clear the Russian government would even need to take this step. Why bother to backdoor an application when you have a legal agreement with the company requiring it to hand over the full account data of any person upon demand? Why go to the trouble of creating a detectable backdoor when you can use deep packet inspection to watch what people do online? Why bother performing all of the data monitoring yourself if you can require corporations to monitor it for you and send regular reports on problematic users?
The NSA was perfectly willing to bug Google data cables to spy on the information the company exchanged between its own private server farms, alongside a number of other dubious behaviors. It seems unlikely that Russian intelligence services are more principled in their respect for user privacy or individual rights. If approved, the bill will enter force on July 1, 2020. The bill is expected to pass, having already gathered the support of all the major Russian political parties.
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