The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) should easily be considered one of the most influential and powerful intelligence organizations in the world today. Its primary functions and roles include: law enforcement, counterintelligence, domestic surveillance, and internal intelligence functions at the national level.

These roles mirror many of the functions assigned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the US (FBI). However, while many of these functions would put the FSB squarely in the realm of law enforcement instead of security or intelligence, the FSB also has mission responsibilities that organizations such as the FBI do not. The most significant being the mission of signals exploitation (SIGINT). This article focuses on the SIGINT capability of the FSB and its threat to US political, economic, and diplomatic policies as well as the threat in the new environment of cyber espionage.

Initially an internally focused organization, the FSB threat profile changed in 2003 when, under Presidential Edict No. 314, the missions and authorities of the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI) were transferred to the FSB. This meant the FSB would now have both the resources and authorities for SIGINT collection against its adversaries and information assurance for all Russian government information systems. This transition established the FSB as a much larger player in the intelligence exploitation community and a larger threat to US interests. Most Western intelligence services separate the responsibilities and missions of SIGINT to a single intelligence organization, like the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US, which has only that authority. Other intelligence services handle matters such as counterintelligence and military-related intelligence. This is not the case with the FSB, which after Presidential Edict No. 314 controls elements of all major aspects and disciplines of intelligence, essentially giving it both unfettered access to collected intelligence as well as the ability to potentially restrict other Russian organizations from accessing the collected data. What exists is a single intelligence service with the capabilities to conduct human intelligence, counter-intelligence, law enforcement, border security, counter-surveillance, and signals collections. This represents a significant amount of authority and global reach that cannot be compared to any one intelligence service within the US or most other modern developed states. With the transition of SIGINT responsibilities, increased authority on border security, and cryptographic responsibilities to the FSB, the comparison of it to the US Intelligence Community also transitioned. Its domestic protection roles still most closely align with the FBI, but its SIGINT responsibilities mirror that of the National Security Agency (NSA), while the border security functions are more akin to the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) or even Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

On top of all of this, the FSB has become increasingly connected to all issues cyber as well. The world continues to become more interconnected. The internet has become an integral part of our daily lives and, for some, even a necessity. It supports everything from e-commerce to sensitive governmental correspondence. So when a country’s intelligence service inserts itself into business transactions, there becomes an increased risk that sensitive data could be syphoned off and used to support both commercial and national intelligence interests at home and abroad. Even though the Russian IT registration requirement is only for private companies operating within Russia, this means little in the interconnected world of the internet where data crosses many geographical boundaries between transmitter and receiver. The internet is a medium susceptible to signals collection just like any other and when countries or intelligence services have access to all internet-based traffic that falls within their borders, then that threat is not only very real but actually amplified.

One example of this threat is the Russian SORM program. SORM, or System for Ensuring Investigated Activity, is a mechanism that permits the FSB to monitor all phone and internet traffic coming in and out of the Russian Federation. While arguments are that this program is a law enforcement and internal security tool, the FSB still remains an intelligence service with a mission set that goes beyond internal security and law enforcement. It is worth noting that until a Russian Supreme Court ruling was handed down in late 2000, the FSB was under no obligation to inform Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that agents were accessing the system. The work undertaken by the FSB to support signals exploitation is not just limited to Russian companies, therefore, but extends to international entities with a presence in the Russian Federation.

On 11 April 2011, for example, a government source told the Interfax news agency that the FSB was not proposing a ban on Gmail, Skype or Hotmail in Russia. The FSB expert speaking at this meeting only expressed concerns that a number of those servers provide services outside of the national legal framework. The inferred concern was that because these companies utilize encryption for securing the communications of users, and none of them are directly based in Russia, the FSB requirement under SORM may not be implemented properly. It is interesting that the FSB would take the time for an interview to highlight its effort to find a solution to make the functioning of these services on Russian territory ‘comply’ with national laws. This statement, while perhaps innocuous on the surface, speaks to the potential level of penetration the FSB can gain into all aspects of communications, both traditional and emerging.

On 8 June 2011 Microsoft Russia made a statement with respect to the FSB and the on-line communications service Skype. In a statement carried by the Russian Federal Security Service-owned but supposedly editorially-independent Russian news agency Ekho Moskvy, Microsoft denied claims it had provided the FSB with encryption algorithms for the internet service. It did, however, admit that the source code for the program was provided. With its charter to protect and monitor cryptographic systems for the Russian government, the FSB has access to those individuals who both create and decipher cryptographic algorithms as part of the newly transferred FAPSI functions. With these vast resources, it is not a giant leap of logic to think the FSB will be sorely tempted to conduct eavesdropping on any entity it wishes, without the support of said company, as long as a suitable connection to ‘national security’ is found.  

These two examples are a sample of how cyber seems to be a new focus of FSB SIGINT collection efforts. And while, for now, they focus solely on what has occurred within Russian territory, it is important to note the FSB has recognized links in over 80 countries and formal offices in at least 18 of them. This level of global reach and interaction means its SIGINT mission can be transferred anywhere the FSB maintains a presence. As these capabilities are deployed, they provide the FSB with a larger SIGINT capability than most intelligence agencies around the world. The FSB of course formally declares that it honors all international treaties and pursues only legitimate inquiries that hold potential harm to the sovereign interests and national security of the Russian Federation. The problem, of course, is just how fungible those sovereign interests might be over time and how relevant the old adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely might become.

Bruce Adriance is a graduate of the Master of Science program in International Security and Intelligence Studies at Bellevue University in Omaha, Nebraska, USA.