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Russian Social Network VK Claims to Protect Users From Warrantless Surveillance


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Russian Social Network VK Claims to Protect Users From Warrantless Surveillance

Post by Lobo on Tue 02 Feb 2016, 1:56 am

Russian Social Network VK Claims to Protect Users From Warrantless Surveillance

Posted 1 February 2016 21:45 GMT

The headquarters of VK on Nevsky Avenue in Saint Petersburg (aka Singer House). Image from Wikimedia Commons.
VKontakte, the most popular social network in Russia, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet countries, has long been the subject of speculation about how exactly it deals with requests for user information from law enforcement and secret services.
VKontakte (or VK for short) representatives have generally remained tight-lipped about the inner workings of their user data management. But in January 2016, the network's press-secretary in Ukraine, Vlad Legotkin, suddenly opened up about VKontakte policies on data privacy, censorship, and, most importantly, on working with secret service requests (though he did not specify whether his comments related to Ukrainian or Russian law enforcement). Below is a verbatim translation of Legotkin's VKontakte post on the matter from January 11.

Friends and fellow journalists always ask me why the VK team doesn't take seriously the regular claims of professional Internet experts—that is, when said bloggers and officials try to provoke us, to get any reaction out of us so they can earn more points in the eyes of their readers and viewers. Let me clarify our position.
We are not a company that will justify itself in monthly press-conferences, beg the partners to collaborate with us or preen at getting onto TV screens chasing the fleeting moment of glory. We work on creating services and stand for open competition. Choose the best.
Some praise VK for lack of harsh censorship directed at its users, others have been criticizing us for years for this very thing. Our position remains obvious and unchanged: there is no place for censorship at VK. Moreover, all personal information and messages stored in the network are protected by the law on privacy of personal correspondence. If the owners of VK or any other resource begin to pass personal information to commercial or state organizations, they will violate not only moral principles, but legal norms as well.
We often hear: if a representative of the state deems it necessary, they will demand access to confidential data without any legal grounds for it, and the founders of the websites won't be able to do anything in response. But in reality the very myth of secret services (which has been kicking around since 2007) is, for the absolute majority of people, a way to boost their own ego. They like to think that their personal information is so important that even secret services, who are mostly interested in combatting coups d'etat, strive to gain access to it no matter what.
It's likely there are those whose fears are warranted–due to them routinely violating the law. If you sell firearms or drugs, distribute child pornography or have connections to organized criminal activity, you better stop using our website period. Just delete your account for good. VK as a platform always gives an opportunity to all sides to speak their mind on one simple condition: the message must be considerate and must not violate any laws.
For those who love and expect official statements on giving out user data, I'll say this. The only condition upon which personal data can be disclosed is when law enforcement agencies can show a court-issued warrant which states that disclosing such information is necessary for conducting an investigation. We study each request for data carefully, in order to be sure that there is sufficient legal ground for satisfying it: we can only disclose that information which is required by law as part of a specific investigation.
Apologies to everyone who will be disappointed upon reading this. Reality is often less interesting and sensational than the foolish claims they're trying to scare you with while manipulating your conscience. And the people trying to scare you are only visible as press snapshots peeking from behind their laptops. For such people the word “Internet” is still spelled with a capital “I”—like the name of some mythical creature or the name of a country from a fairy tale.
Legotkin's explanations, while frank and no-nonsense, are at odds with independent observations and VK's own history when it comes to dissenting political speech. According to Russian media reports based on insider intelligence of those working on Russia's SORM surveillance system, the Russian government has played an active role in the evolution of VKontakte. Not only does the state monitor the website’s users, the sources claim, but it has also ensured VKontakte’s popularity over Facebook by obligating Internet providers to dedicate greater bandwidth to VKontakte traffic.

The turbulent history of VKontakte

In September 2014, Russia’s Internet group became the sole owner of VKontakte, the country's largest social network. Mail.Ru group management is said to have close ties with the Kremlin, and the company happens to also own Russia’s other large social network, The new CEO of VK, Boris Dobrodeev, has direct ties to the Kremlin propaganda machine: he is the son of Oleg Dobrodeev, who is in charge of Russian state TV and radio broadcaster VGTRK.

Pavel Durov in 2012. Image by Nick Lubushko, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Previously, VKontakte founder and long-time CEO Pavel Durov said he refused to share information on Ukrainian opposition Euromaidan groups organizing on VKontakte with Russian secret police in December of 2013. Durov said he refused the law enforcement requests because Russia's jurisdiction did not apply to Ukrainian VKontakte users. “Giving Ukrainians’ personal data to Russian authorities would not only be a violation of the law, but would be a betrayal of the millions of Ukrainian citizens who trusted us,” Durov wrote at the time. He has also refused to block opposition groups aligned with Russian blogger and opposition political figure Alexei Navalny on VK.
But Durov had to sell his stake and eventually leave the company at the start of 2014, moving abroad and citing pressure from state security services and unfavorable business conditions in Russia as his reasons. VKontakte soon after blocked Ukraine-affiliated communities, including some right-wing nationalist groups in March of 2014.
While VK's staff may truly believe its policies about personal data and censorship are fair and transparent, the new owners and management may have different ideas about confidentiality of user information, especially when concerns like national security and international political influence are on the line.

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