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16 Dec, 2020 14:53

Russia mulls tough new laws bolstering secrecy for state security officials as Bellingcat claims to have tracked FSB agent’s phone

Russia mulls tough new laws bolstering secrecy for state security officials as Bellingcat claims to have tracked FSB agent’s phone

A package of new measures designed to protect the secrecy around Russian security officers is working its way through the country’s parliament, just one day after Western internet sleuths claimed to have traced an agent’s phone.

On Tuesday, the State Duma adopted the first reading of a bill that would prohibit the disclosure of information relating to the work, and the personal lives, of Russia’s police, military, and security workers.

Its sponsors, which include the chairman of the Security Committee, Vasily Piskarev, say that the new legislation would open the door to a “ban on giving out information about protected persons held by service operators to third parties … regardless of the presence of an immediate threat to their safety.” While this would effectively prohibit the release of data on top officials, exceptions are specifically made for cases of corruption and wrongdoing. 

In a press release, the State Duma parliament said the rationale for the bill was that “the unauthorized publication on the internet of information about events and circumstances of the private life of law enforcement officers, regulatory officials and military personnel is currently expanding, negatively affecting their ability to exercise their powers, hindering the administration of justice, and the fight against crime.”

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The news comes one day after US government-funded online investigations outfit Bellingcat claimed to have pinpointed a member of the FSB, the country’s top domestic security agency, to within a six-minute drive of where opposition figure Alexey Navalny was staying when he was allegedly poisoned in August. According to them, the officer had flown to the Siberian city of Tomsk and was located roughly within the same area the day before Navalny was taken ill on a flight to Moscow. Navalny’s team and Bellingcat allege that the events amount to a state-sponsored attempt on his life with the nerve agent Novichok. 

Russia has strenuously denied claims of involvement, with the Kremlin labelling earlier allegations in Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper as “bulls**t.” Vladimir Putin’s team is yet to respond to the details of Bellingcat’s new report, but a press conference has been called for Thursday, where the president may take questions on the matter.

Eliot Higgins, the founder of the Western state-backed group, pointed to the new measures as proof that his unit has exposed security flaws. “Despite official silence on our Navalny investigation,” he wrote on Twitter, “it seems The State Duma is rapidly passing legislation seemingly in reaction to our work.” That said, the measures were proposed over a week ago, so it is more likely to be related to previous instances where there were concerns over access to confidential data online.

Also on rt.com ‘State terrorism’: Russian opposition figure Navalny names men he believes 'poisoned him' & accuses Kremlin of ordering hit

The Bellingcat expose has, however, sparked fears that it could be part of wider Western intelligence efforts against Russia. Former Russian Duma member Sergey Markov previously claimed that “Bellingcat looks very much like the information warfare department of MI6 to me.” He added that he believes “very professional people are working on their falsifications.” The group previously came under fire for moving away from its original stated intention of using only open-source material, admitting to relying on so-called “confidential human sources” in its investigation into the alleged poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Bellingcat. as Higgins is desperate to point out, lists all of its funders on its website, as well as audited accounts. Among their benefactors is the US government’s National Endowment for Democracy. However, what Bellingcat does not make clear is on what basis the funding is offered – whether it is related to specific projects and objectives, or if it comes with no strings attached. Given how complementary Bellingcat’s revelations have been for US foreign policy at times, questions around their independence can hardly be dismissed out of hand. 

Russia has taken steps to shore up the privacy and security of its communications networks in recent years. The country has invested considerable sums into the development of a ‘closed’ military internet network, including laying cables across the Arctic, though it is still dependent on communications platforms and technologies brought in from abroad, including from China and Western Europe.

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