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Over 1 million Russians could be surveillance targets by year's end

Russian activists claim Moscow is drastically expanding its electronic eavesdropping at home. A new report alleges the country's wiretapping efforts on its own citizens have doubled in recent years.

Over a million Russians could soon have their phone conversations monitored by the government, according to data released by Russian political activists. In the first Russian-language edition of "The Red Web: The Struggle between Russia's Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries" published Friday in Moscow, investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan allege the number of wiretap requests granted by Russian courts has doubled in the last eight years.

The journalists say records published by the Russian court system show that between 2007 and 2015, the number of court-sanctioned eavesdropping operations climbed from 265,937 to 539,964.  Other activists claim the number could be much higher. Figures published by journalist Oleg Solmanov earlier this month indicate that almost 1 million Russian citizens were wiretapped so far this year. 

The activists say many Russian citizens targeted by government wiretapping programs are the subjects of legitimate criminal investigations. However, they say opposition politicians, political activists and even businessmen increasingly find themselves targeted by government surveillance operations. Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov tried to investigate to what extent he was targeted by Kremlin-sanctioned spying efforts, but he made little headway before his murder last year.

Russland Moskau Opposition Boris Nemzow erschossen (picture alliance/Ria Novosti)

Opposition politician Nemtsov attempted to investigate spying efforts against him before his killing

Speaking to DW, "The Red Web" co-author Irina Borogan says the lack of legal checks on wiretapping powers is encouraging abuse among government investigators. She says a member of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet Union's KGB, only needs to file a report requesting eavesdropping operations in order to secure permission.

"Russia is an authoritarian state which is starting to resemble a police state, with the government constantly pushing for more surveillance of everyday people," Borogan said.

The 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia kicked off a renaissance of sorts for Moscow's intelligence services, according to Borogan, increasing the number of intelligence operations carried out by the government and raising concerns among the country's elite.

"Average Russians don't pay attention to [government] wiretapping," she said. "Authoritarian states give people space. If you're not a politician or a businessman but a school teacher or an office worker, you can get used to the system. But opposition politicians, businessmen and journalists are worried."

Private email accounts also at risk

Electronic surveillance is increasingly a concern among politically engaged Russians. Last week, dozens of journalists and activists claimed they received warnings from Google that an unknown third party had attempted to access their email accounts without permission. Ilja Klishin, an editor at Russia's independent TV Rain website, posted a screenshot he claims he was sent indicating intelligence agencies had attempted to break his password.

"It's possible members of the intelligence service are trying to steal your password," it reads.

He is just one of dozens of journalists who have taken to social media to complain about the attempt to break their passwords. DW reached out to Google Russia, who declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying only that "the emergency warning system does not necessarily mean a breach attempt was made, but indicates that the company believes one took place."

The company added that the system "warns users when a third party attempts to violate their account," but it cannot be "100-percent certain the accounts were targeted."

Expats also under pressure

But email warnings like the ones sent to Google Russia users last week are all too familiar to one former English teacher from the United States who spoke to DW.

"I got a couple of warnings that someone was trying to change my passwords, and then my students told me that FSB agents were hanging around after class," he said, adding that the authorities were interested in what he was teaching the students, particularly on political and economic topics. 

Eventually, the teacher said he was picked up by three agents who wanted to know what he was doing in Russia.

"They didn't threaten me but I was scared all the same," he said. "I mean, I was just teaching. I don't know why spies would be interested in me. They kept trying to find out if I had any connections to the military back home and said I should meet with them regularly to talk about other Americans in Russia."

He says he declined the request but said the agents had some parting advice: "They told me I shouldn't contact [the American] embassy. He said they could tell if I tried."