Russian State Censor Planning to Block LinkedIn; Is This Payback for Russian Hacker’s Arrest?

October 26, 2016
Yevgeny Nikulin posing with his Lamboraghini. Photo via Instagram and The Insider

LIVE UPDATES: Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media supervision agency that serves as a state censor, is planning to block LinkedIn for not placing its servers with Russian customer data on Russian soil. There is some speculation that LinkedIn has been chosen first in retaliation for the arrest of Russian hacker Yevgeny Nikulin.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

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Free Media in Russia Suffers More Blows with Vedomosti Editor Leaving, Sechina Lawsuit Against Novaya Gazeta

Vedomosti announced that Tatyana Lysova, editor-in-chief ofVedomosti and board member of Business News Media, would be departing in six months in 2017.

Lysova said that she needed to spend more time with her school-age children. She said the decision was not related to any external political reasons or internal corporate reasons. 

But Ekho Moskvy cited sources that Demyan Kudryavtsev, the owner of Vedomosti who purchased it last year amid concern for its freedom, made the decision to dismiss Lysova after Igor Sechin sued the paper to retract a news story about property he acquired in Barvikha. The ruling was appealed but upheld by Ostankino Court in Moscow.

Novaya Gazeta also announced today that while a lower court had rejected the lawsuit against the paper by Olga Sechina, wife of powerful Putin ally Igor Sechin, regarding their reporting on the Princess Olga yacht named for her, Moscow City Court has overturned the ruling. Despite the fact that the procedural violations cited by the lower court were not removed, the suit will go forward.

Earlier this month, Sechin himself sued Novaya Gazeta for exposure of privacy in the article “The Secret of Princess Olga,” and Basmanny Court ruled in his favor, obliging Novaya Gazeta to print a retraction within 7 days. Novaya Gazeta appealed the ruling.

Novaya Gazeta said they cannot retract what they did not say.  Novaya Gazeta did not claim the yacht was owned by Sechin but may have been leased or gifted, and the statement that previously Sechin had been in charge of ships and then later appeared on one from the Oceanco company was not a claim made by the paper. The ruling was based on a linguistic analysis by Moscow State University Professor Mariya Shulgina who said that ownership and relationship to the ship company were “implied.”

This brings to at least three the news publications threatened with demise by the powerful Igor Sechin, whose contract with Rosneft was renewed last year for five years.

In addition to Vedomosti and Novaya Gazeta, Rosneft, the Russian state energy giant, has brought its largest suit against RBC, seeking more than $3 billion rubles (about $50 million), claiming the news service harmed its business reputation. The claim stems from an RBC article on statements by anonymous government sources that in the forthcoming privatization of 19.5% of Rosneft’s stock the Kremlin was asking prospective visitors not to make any deals with BP, which owns 19.75% of the stock, to prevent a blocking portfolio.

Anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny says Sechin has successfully stopped anyone who has written about his compensation at Rosneft, his yacht or his home; he recalled the ruling that ordered the physical destruction of a whole print run of Vedomosti on Sechin’s  $58.5 million home in the prestigious suburban area of Rublyovka.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Russian State Censor Planning to Block LinkedIn; Is This Payback for Russian Hacker’s Arrest?

Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media supervision agency that serves as a state censor, is planning to block LinkedIn, the US-based social media for professionals, Kommersant reports.

Kommersant has learned that LinkedIn may be targeted because it has not placed servers on Russian soil under the new Law on Personal Data passed last year requiring Internet Service Providers to enable access to Russian customer data inside Russia. The law purports to protect the privacy of Russians, but is generally viewed by IT professionals as well as opposition as a means for the Federal Security Service (FSB) to access citizens’ communications.

Roskomnadzor sources also complained that LinkedIn has no representative office in Mosow. According to Kommersant, Roskomnadzor has appealed in court to have the domain blocked since not only has it failed to place servers in Russia but is collecting information about citizens who are not users of the service (this could be a reference to the feature of the service that collects your email address list). 

Tagansky Court has already ruled in favor of Roskomnadzor, but the decision has not gone into force.

“Now LinkedIn is fighting at Moscow City Court for its existence,” says Kommersant, implying that it has appealed the ruling to a higher court.

Roskomnadzor cites multiple press reports about repeated links of user data from the LinkedIn, the world’s largest network for business connections and job search.

But the largest breach appears to have been caused by a Russian hackers. 

7:40 na perrone, the daily news summary published by Currenttime.TV, a project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has questioned whether the authorities’ move against LinkedIn could be in retaliation for the arrest of Yevgeny Nikulin, a Russian hacker accused of illegally accessing LinkedIn and disseminating private customer data.

There has been speculation that the DDoS on the East Coast earlier this week could also be retaliation for Nikulin’s arrest. 

Nikulin was arrested in Prague last week under an Interpol warrant requested by the United States and now faces a Czech extradition hearing. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Nikulin’s arrest but said it was politically-motivated and part of a “hunt” of Russians abroad.

In a corporate statement, LinkedIn itself made the connection between the breach of its site and the arrest of Nikulin. 

There has been much debate about whether the Russian hackers of the DNC and other institutions related to the US elections are independent agents or tasked by the Russian government;  US law-enforcers have formally charged the Russian government with the hack, which Kremlin officials deny.

Nikulin’s possession of luxury cars and large sums of money tied to his accounts indicate some entity with the ability to make large payments could have hired him. 

A security researcher has found that one of Nikulin’s online nicknames is tied to a Bitcoin account  with about $1 million in bitcoins.

The Russian media has been tracking Nikulin’s love of expensive cars and his Instagram photos of himself posing by a Laborghini. 

The Insider reports that a person with the same first name, patronymic, last name and date of birth was arrested by police in 2009 in Koptevo and accused of “large-scale fraud” for conning his fellow university student to allow him access to her WebMoney site, from which he stole 111,136 rubles ($1,784). The Insider found that his case is on file in the Moscow headquarters of the Interior Ministry, but the outcome of the case isn’t known and the police won’t talk. 

The Insider also found that Nikulin lived in Moscow on Kantemirskaya Street and worked for Mosgortrans, the city transportation company, at a bus depot. The Insider also believes that Nikulin was part of Cosy Bear and Fancy Bear, the hacker groups associated with Russian intelligence.

The threat to block the web sites of social media companies Facebook, Twitter, Google and others if they refuse to obey Russian laws has been repeatedly invoked in the Russia media, but has not materialized as negotiations apparently still go on behind the scenes. So the action could be unrelated to the arrest of Nikulin, but it’s interesting that the censor has begun with LinkedIn.

Roskomnadzor has said thousands of companies have already complied with the law and that it would attempt to work with others such as Facebook to gain compliance. It’s not clear whether these companies will cave to Russian demands. Google has already reportedly placed some servers in Russia and as we reported. already blocks banned sites from search results. 

The state censor has also reprimanded Twitter for not heeding all of its requests to block accounts or tweets.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick