Russia, Snowden or: How We Should Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the State

By Konstantin Avramov, Program Director

On August 1, the Russian government granted NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a three-year residency permit in the country, with the possibility of earning Russian citizenship afterwards. As many noted when he first received Russian asylum in August of 2013, Snowden’s story is not without a serious dose of irony: the person who exposed mass digital surveillance by the American government landed in one of the most diligently controlled states in Europe. Recent laws of the Russian government have taken this irony to new highs.

Just this past July, the Russian government instituted a law requiring all Internet companies to record and store the data on their Russian users. Last week, Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev signed a law obligating companies to obtain passport information of those using their public Wi-Fi networks. Not only is this law largely unprecedented (only China has similar rules) but its unenforceable and of limited practical use. The theoretical targets would be the dumbest lawbreakers, readily providing their real passports while conducting illegal activity at the nearest Starbucks — “Another latte, Mr. Bin Laden?”

This may be simply another way for the government to remind “troublemakers” that the government is watching, and they should crawl back into the dark realm of Tor networks, and never come out into the openness of public discourse. It appears the lesson the Russian government has drawn from Snowden is one of a need to increase its own capacity to monitor the population – a race for control. Like Sputnik did for Americans, Snowden has served as a wake up call that Russia might be losing that race.

Here, one is reminded of a part in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satirical film, Dr. Strangelove, in which a Soviet ambassador informs the American president that the world is about to be destroyed by a “Doomsday Machine.”The ambassador then explains that the Soviets designed the machine to be so destructive in fear of falling behind Americans in a “Doomsday Machine” race. Absurdity, it seems, is once again rushing back into U.S.-Russia relations. Or has it ever left?