Yesterday, 28 June, President Vladimir Putin spoke at the 95th anniversary of what became Directorate S of the KGB, which ran operations abroad under deep cover. That Putin should lyricise on this subject scarcely evokes surprise. He emphasised above all the ongoing tradition and specifically praised those who through ‘difficult years – I am confident you know what I am referring to’ preserved ‘continuity’ with the Soviet past.
Not all is continuity, however, in that Putin also underlined the force of change, in the form of the ‘innovative methods’ now deployed by Russia’s enemies. The advantage Russia once had by virtue of backwardness in operational computer technology meant that, right after the fall of Soviet power, Moscow could guard its secrets more easily from prying eyes. It constructed a closed military and military-industrial intranet to which access was closely guarded – Pavel Ivanov, “Sled khakera”, Voenno-promyshlennyi kur’ier.
But Adam was tempted by the apple. The safe precincts of paradise were not enough. Why not penetrate Western systems making use of abundant natural talent in Russia’s vicinity? Since Russian hackers were breaking into the computers of members of the legislature to blackmail them, why not trap them and offer incentives to keep out of prison?
Outsourcing the hacking of foreign targets thus entailed hiring criminals to do piece work for the secret services and by definition that brought senior security officials previously working only for love of country into direct contact with those whose hands were like Midas, highly infectious. Outsourcing had made the Russian secret communications systems permeable because the West could track what criminal hackers were up to and follow them to ground. Then a rather different kind of offer was made. The net result was the unfortunate experience of having the West gain access to the highest level Kremlin communications systems. Attending conferences where senior officials were without abandon using their cell phones, for example. presented ready opportunities for interception.