Sep 22, 2013
The Kremlin is up to its domes in spy technology. One reason is fear, provoked by the Arab Spring, of a growing and diffuse protest movement that uses social media to organize. Notably, the authorities have taken an interest in DPI (or deep packet inspection) tools, which are essential to monitoring the internet Russia-wide. The largest voice-recognition company in Russia has likewise developed close ties with the authorities, while tracing its origin to the Gulag.
Nor is Russia exactly a newcomer. The Soviet Union worked heavily on a litany of tools to spy on its own citizens. But for years, internet monitoring in Russia was carried out on the regional level: a hodge-podge of systems that blocked banned websites, as ordered by regional courts. That changed in November, when the Kremlin moved to implement a nation-wide internet-filtering system to block websites deemed extremist and harmful to children — a label often painted with a broad brush to mean anyone who opposes the Putin regime.
It’s also not just Russia that’s buying Russian-made surveillance technologies, and the tech isn’t limited to inside Russia’s borders. They’ve been extended to former Soviet republics, and very far from Moscow: in Latin America, Canada and even the United States. Here are several.
The world leader in voice recognition technology goes by two names. In the company’s home city of Saint Petersburg, it’s known as the Speech Technology Center, or STC. In the United States, it operates from its New York City offices under the name SpeechPro. The anodyne names betray no signs that the company’s origins trace to a secret Soviet technologies unit run under the auspices of the KGB — and developed inside the Stalin-era Gulag system of convict labor camps.
The company’s roots didn’t grow in a hard labor camp — as the Gulag is most notoriously known — but at a related prison for engineers and scientists known as the Sharashka Marfino. There, researchers and engineers plucked from various camps were forced to work identifying voices calling in to foreign embassies located in Moscow.
“Our Center was founded in 1990,” Sergei Koval, a leading STC analyst, told us. “Before that all of our employees worked in the applied acoustics unit — a department that was run by the KGB, but formally attached to the scientific development center of the Ministry for Communications … The ‘Sharashka,’ where [seminal Russian novelist Alexander] Solzhenitsyn worked, was transferred from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. The people described in his novel [In the First Circle] continued to work in the Saint Petersburg outfit even after their release, and I met them when I came to work in the unit back in 1973.”
In 2010, the STC completed its first national voice recognition project — surprisingly not in Russia — but in Mexico. The system is able to use state records of human voice and biometric details to identify individuals from fragments of speech alone. Mexico’s national database includes recorded speech fragments from criminals, law enforcement personnel and many law-abiding citizens, who are obliged to supply vocal samples for state-regulated activities such as obtaining a driver’s license. A huge database was built containing up to several million voices of known criminals, persons of interest, or people on a watch list. It takes just five seconds to scan through 10,000 voices, and its accuracy, STC claims, is at least 90 percent.
Most recently, the company has sought to strengthen its ties to the Kremlin and find new markets for its biometric tools. In 2011, Russia’s state-affiliated Gazprombank became the joint owner of STC. Gazprombank, to clarify, is part of the vast business empire of Yuri Kovalchuk, a close friend of Vladimir Putin.
STC’s speech recognition tools are also at use inside the United States, Slate reported in September. Alexey Khitrov, STC Strategic Development Director, told the magazine that the company is working with a number of U.S. agencies at the state and federal level. They might want to ask about those ties to Putin.
STC does not limit itself to voice recognition, but is involved in developing face recognition technologies as well. In December 2012, STC announced it had gone to Ecuador and installed "the world’s first biometric identification platform, at a nation-wide level, that combines voice and face identification capabilities."
The system allows authorities to accumulate a large image database of criminals and suspects. STC also claims it has invented algorithms that "deliver reliable results even when facial characteristics have undergone physical changes, and the system’s voice and face modalities can be used together or separately — a voice sample or facial image alone is sufficient to make an identification." Publicly, STC is cautious to note that its surveillance technologies are used for only good, but as STC has also sold technology to authoritarian regimes in Uzbekistan and Belarus, among others.
When it comes to lawfully intercepting private communications, the standards and procedures are different in the United States than they are in Russia, as we wrote in December. Some Russian manufacturers, however, have still found a way to penetrate into the North American market.
One of them is MFI-Soft. The company’s focus: a vendor of information security and telecommunications “solutions” for law enforcement agencies, VoIP (or voice over internet protocol) carriers and internet service providers. And the company claims to develop products for law enforcement, national security and intelligence agencies, and the military.
Founded in 1989, MFI-Soft is also the largest Russian producer of telecommunications traffic interceptors, with installations in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. And since the introduction of internet-filtering in Russia, MSI-Soft has developed a special filtering tool called Perimeter-F, which the company bills as a cheap and no-frills deep packet inspection system for small and mid-sized ISPs — as opposed to larger (and expensive) systems used by Russia’s largest internet providers.
But in Canada, the company is known under the name ALOE Systems, based in the Toronto suburb of Markham. ALOE’s leading interception technology, NetBeholder, provides a high-end system capable of detection, monitoring, storage and analysis of information traveling over the internet, and a laptop system "designed specifically for field interception — at Internet cafes, hotels, restaurants and other public places."
Beyond Canada, ALOE’s list of clients consists of telecom operators in the United States and Mexico, along with Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Peru and Uruguay. Vitaly Potapov, an ALOE senior sales manager whom we met at the company’s office in Markham, explained that the company plans to open a U.S. office within a few months: “The market for our VoIP technologies is huge in the States,” he said.
The company is also quite close to the Kremlin. In April, chief executive Alexander Belyakov tagged along with the Russian delegation to a Germany security conference — the Partnership Between State, Civil Society and Business in the Field of Information Security and Combating Terrorism — which was organized by top-level Russian cyber officials. (MFI-Soft was one of the few Russian surveillance technology producers to be invited.)
The delegation likewise included Vladislav Sherstyuk, adviser to Russia’s Security Council and a former director of FAPSI: the Russian analogue to the NSA. Nikolai Klimashin, the former technical chief for the FSB — the successor agency to the KGB — and the current deputy security of the Security Council, also came along. Next stop: the United States.
The traditional way to eavesdrop on phone calls is to monitor the telecom operator for incoming calls. When dealing with mobile phones, however, it can be much more effective to intercept calls right on the spot.
Discovery Telecom Technologies (DTT) has exactly that kind of equipment. The company’s AIBIS system (or In-Between Interception System) works by masquerading as a cell phone tower, sucking in nearby signals and allowing the device’s operator to surreptitiously listen and record. Established in Moscow, the firm also counts offices in Switzerland and Salt Lake City, Utah, and boasts on its Russian website about including the Kremlin and the FSB among its clients.
“This product does actual interception of cell phone communications content,” Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties Union’s top technologist, tells Danger Room. According to a product description, AIBIS is able to intercept up to eight incoming and outgoing mobile phone calls "with any type of encryption, in real-time." It can also "work with moving and driving targets, providing fast, reliable interception, interrogation, data analysis, IMSI/IMEI catching and selective jamming of GSM traffic in the area."
That also extends to general packet radio service (or GPRS) traffic, which means SMS messages and mobile internet access can be monitored. The system can selectively jam cell phone signals, and it also includes a module to help locate targets. The whole package weighs around 22 pounds.
More practically speaking, that can mean parking a car equipped with the interception device near the offices of a target, or, for instance, hiding a wired-up van close to a square where protests are taking place. As reporters Marc Ambinder and David Brown wrote in their book Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry: "Your data might have been intercepted or collected by Russia, China, or Israel if you traveled to those countries. The FBI has quietly removed from several Washington, D.C.–area cell phone towers, transmitters that fed all data to wire rooms at foreign embassies."
Russian surveillance tech isn’t just about keeping tabs on people. One Russian startup is helping New York City keep tabs on its fleet of buses. The plan — which received permission from New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in October — aims to test software developed by Russian firm Doroga.TV that can allow passengers to track public transport online. That can mean finding the approximate time a particular bus is due, and calculate the best route between stops. Compared to other tech coming out of Russia, it’s absolutely benign.
According to Evgeni Makarov, Doroga.TV’s director of development, the New York project is still in the testing phase. Doroga.TV — which started up in 2007 with a staff of 12 — plans to analyze data obtained by satellite with GPS receivers installed on buses, and then provide statistics on that data to the MTA. The service has already been implemented in several mid-sized Russian cities. If the MTA implements the company’s tech, you can thank Moscow for helping you bounce around the Big Apple.
The source: Wired