New Leak Details Kremlin’s Plans For a Russian ‘National Internet’

What would an autonomous Russian Internet look like? Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

What would an autonomous Russian Internet look like? Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

Over the past few years, the Russian government has made numerous moves to gain more control over the Internet, strengthening regulatory controls over online content and pushing foreign Internet businesses working in the RuNet, such as Apple and Google, towards data localization.

A new leak from the mysterious hacker group Anonymous International (also known as Shaltai Boltai or Humpty Dumpty) reveals that the Russian government has been hearing proposals for much more radical moves to isolate the Russian Internet. One of these involves the concept of a “national information platform,” which would effectively provide an alternative Internet exclusively for Russian use.

The leaked documents include several emails from Dmitry Panyukov (director of the Institute of Demography, Migration, and Regional Development) and Garald Bandurin (IT director of RusHydro), along with a June 22, 2015 document describing a proposed “national information platform,” that would eliminate Russia's dependence on western firms and technology allegedly. This particular document appears to have been put together by Bandurin and Sergey Ganzya of the Foreign Trade Bank, along with several other people. The opening sentences of this document outline the reasons for the development of a separate Russian Internet:

В интересах граждан Российской Федерации, российской государственности, развития экономики, ключевых предприятий и объектов инфраструктуры, предлагается создание национальной информационной платформы. Создание платформы призвано содействовать созданию независимого информационно-технологического базиса социально-экономического развития страны.

In the interests of the citizens of the Russian Federation, the Russian statehood, and the development of the economy, key enterprises and infrastructure, the creation of a national information platform is proposed. The creation of such a platform is designed to promote the establishment of an independent foundation of information technology for the country’s socio-economic development.

The idea that Russia could cast itself off from the global Internet and create its own, autonomous virtual space is not new: it has previously been floated either in cryptic comments (Putin calling the Internet a “CIA project”) or in calls from Russian lawmakers to prepare for a cyber-blackout. In the proposal document the authors point to specific threats to national security emerging from Russian dependency on foreign technology. The authors describe how Russia’s technological reliance on companies including Microsoft, Apple, and Google, has allowed the political ramifications of Russia’s actions in Ukraine to impact the nation’s technological operations.

Так, мы имеем недавний факт блокирования крымских пользователей компаниями Apple и Google. По мнению руководителя ведущей российской ИТ компании, Infowatch, Натальи Касперской, вероятность наличия в наиболее распространённой операционной системе Windows специальных «закладок», способных по внешней команде одномоментно блокировать большинство российских компьютеров и сетей, крайне высока.

We have a recent example of the blocking of Crimean users by Apple and Google. In the opinion of Natalya Kasperskaya, the head of leading Russian IT company Infowatch, there is an extremely high likelihood of the presence of special “bookmarks” in Windows, the most common operating system, that are capable of simultaneously blocking the majority of Russian computers and networks via external command.

According to the authors of the “national information platform” concept, the need for an independent Russian Internet goes beyond potential hiccups from particular western technology firms—it is, they believe, a matter of national security. The authors lay out a scenario in which the West could “paralyze” Russia due to its alleged technological dependency.

…сегодня не существует никаких объективных гарантий, что в случае эскалации конфликта с Западом, их спецслужбы не смогут парализовать, или хуже того, захватить прямое управление элементами ключевой инфраструктуры – стрелками железных дорог, кранами и насосами трубопроводов, не говоря уже об инфраструктуре связи и коммуникаций. Ведь все это работает на западных платформах.

…today there are no objective guarantees that, in the event of an escalation in the conflict with the West, their security services could not paralyze, or worse yet take direct control of elements of critical infrastructure—including railway points, valves and pumps of pipelines, not to mention the telecommunications infrastructure. After all, all of this works on Western platforms.

In addition to adapting to Western sanctions on Russia’s technological capabilities, the plan could give a needed boost Russia’s IT sector, in much the same way that Russia’s food sanctions against the west were ostensibly aimed at bolstering Russia’s agricultural sector with import substitution.

In April 2015, the Russian Communications Ministry presented Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with its import-substitution plan for the IT industry, suggesting that by 2025, the proportion of foreign software without a Russian substitute used in Russia should fall to 50 percent.

However, the authors acknowledge that an initial hurdle to cross in order to grow Russia's IT potential is the availability of young minds to push for a technological boom in Russia. With the implementation of a “national informational platform,” they believe the ongoing “brain drain” of qualified Russian human resources and IT professionals could be reversed.

Потеря, утечка самых перспективных кадров, лучших отечественных умов – пожалуй, это главный вызов момента. Без передовых кадров, компетентных и конкурентных, на уровне мировых требований завтрашнего дня, Россий обречена быть зависимой и ведомой.

Perhaps the main challenge of the current moment is the loss and “brain drain” of the most promising cadres and best Russian minds. Without advanced human resources, competent and competitive ones in line with the global demands of tomorrow, Russia is doomed to being dependent and to following instead of leading.

While the Anonymous International leak does not specify exactly how high in the Kremlin's hierarchy the proposal has reached, and how seriously it was considered, it still provides a revealing glimpse of the technological concerns of Russia’s elite. The leaked emails and documents contain no talk about the ideological or moral concerns of Roskomnadzor (the Kremlin’s Internet watchdog), but they do display serious concerns about Russia’s strategic vulnerabilities in case its relationship with the West deteriorates further. As Russia continues to crack down on Internet freedoms, the end-game, as revealed in this leaked proposal, may leave the Russian Internet user with something closer to the walled-off Chinese web than the selectively though still heavily censored Turkish Internet.

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