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Russia to spy on Olympic athletes, visitors: researchers

Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds a torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay across Russia, in Moscow on October 6, 2013
Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds a torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay across Russia, in Moscow on October 6, 2013

Russia has installed an all-encompassing surveillance system at the site of next year's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi that will allow security services to listen in on athletes and visitors, security analysts said on Monday.

The surveillance system, known as SORM, was first developed by the Soviet-era KGB, predecessor of the FSB special services, in the mid-1980s. It has been updated in recent years to keep tabs on the Russian opposition, among other things, said prominent security analyst Andrei Soldatov.

SORM will give Russian security services free access to all phone and Internet communications at the Olympic Games in February without the providers' knowledge, according to research by Soldatov and his colleague Irina Borogan.

Police officers secure a court in Kirov, Russia, on July 18, 2013
Police officers secure a court in Kirov, Russia, on July 18, 2013

Telecom providers are required to pay for the SORM equipment and its installation, but law enforcement agencies will be able to wiretap without having to show providers court orders allowing the eavesdropping, the analysts said.

"Operators do not know what and when the FSB is monitoring," Soldatov, who collaborated on the project with Citizen Lab, a research centre at the University of Toronto and UK-based charity Privacy International, told AFP.

Citing research based on documents published by the Russian government procurement agency and other state records, analysts said the authorities have been installing the surveillance devices in the Black Sea resort of Sochi over the past few years.

Russia has pulled out all the stops to get the subtropic region ready for the Games, spending more than $50 billion (37 billion euros) in state and corporate money on infrastructure improvements.

"There is a promise that visitors will have access to the fastest WiFi networks in Olympic history, for free," the researchers said on their website agentura.ru.

But at the same time, analysts said, national telecom provider Rostelecom is installing DPI (deep packet inspection) systems on all its mobile networks, technology which will allow the FSB not only to monitor all traffic but also to filter it.

Overseeing security in Sochi, which is close to the volatile North Caucasus region, is deputy FSB chief Oleg Syromolotov, who has spent his entire career chasing foreign spies.

While many Olympic host countries take steps to monitor communications for security reasons, Russia has taken surveillance to a new level, said Soldatov, adding the government will also deploy drones and sonars to detect submarines.

"The most unique feature of this system is its totality," said Soldatov, adding he was astonished to learn that the defence ministry bought the sonars especially for the Olympic Games.

Elements of the system were also used during the Universiade world student games Russia hosted this summer in the Volga city of Kazan, he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent, and during his 13-year rule security services have dramatically raised their profile in the country.

Russia and glass houses

Opposition leaders have complained in recent years that their communications are monitored by security services, and transcripts of their phone calls have repeatedly appeared in the media close to the Kremlin.

"During Soviet times they listened in on phone calls -- now everything has been taken to a different technology level," said independent security analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

In Russia, "you should not forget that you live in a glass house".

Last week, FSB representative Alexei Lavrishchev told reporters that unprecedented security measures in Sochi were designed to ensure the success of the games.

The Russian authorities have recently come under pressure over a controversial anti-gay law, with activists calling for a boycott of the games.

On Monday, Russia started a torch relay which will take the flame on a more than 65,000 kilometre (40,000 mile) journey across the country.

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