Nokia provided Russia with equipment to monitor communications with its main operator

As has happened with many other technologies, nokia has announced that he will stop selling your products and services in Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. He has also condemned her. But for several years, according to the New York Times, she has provided authorities with both equipment such as software to connect the government with the largest telecommunications network in the country.

This system is called SORM (System for Operative Investigative Activities), and as its name suggests, it was conceived as a digital surveillance tool. After its connection with the aforementioned network, from the MTS operator, the main Russian operator, it was used to monitor the online movements of the followers of the Russian opponent Alexei Navalny. Specifically, it was done by the country’s main intelligence service, the FSB.

It is important to mention that Nokia does not develop technology designed to intercept communications, but several documents from 2008 to 2017 from the operator MTS obtained by the newspaper detail how Nokia collaborated with companies linked to the Russian state to plan, adjust and solve the problems of the connection of the SORM system with the MTS network. This connection allows the FSB to listen to telephone conversations, intercept SMS and email messages, and trace various communications established through the Internet.

The documents show in various details that Nokia was aware that it was helping set up Russia’s surveillance system, and that the work done was essential for Nokia to do business in the country. The Finnish company had become one of the main providers of equipment and services for several telecommunications companies, so that they could run their networks.

At the request of the New York Times, Russian intelligence and digital surveillance expert Andrei Soldatov has reviewed some of Nokia’s documents, stating that without the company’s involvement in SORM, “it would have been impossible to develop such a system. They had to have known how their devices were going to be used«.

Nokia fights back

The company, for its part, has not denied the authenticity of the documents, but has stated that under Russian law it was required to develop products that would allow a Russian telecommunications operator to connect to the SORM system.

Nokia has also said that other countries are making similar requests, so they have to decide between making the Internet work or leaving. The company has also claimed that it did not manufacture, install or maintain SORM equipment.

Apart from this, it has stressed that it follows international standards, used by many major network equipment providers, that cover government surveillance, and has called on governments to set clearer export rules on where technology can be sold, apart from strengthen its condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine. and to point out that «Nokia does not have the ability to control, access or interfere with any lawful interception capabilities on the networks that our customers own and operate.«.

The SORM system

SORM, whose implementation dates back to the 90s of the last century, is similar to the systems used by government agencies in various countries to spy on and monitor criminal targets. Telecommunications equipment manufacturers such as Nokia are frequently asked by them to harden these systems and make them work seamlessly with communications networks.

In democratic countries, the police are often required to obtain a court order before requesting data from telecommunications providers. But in Russia, the SORM system skips the process, and works as a surveillance black box that can deliver whatever information the FSB wants, which they can seize without any supervision. In 2018, Russia strengthened a law that required telecommunications and internet companies to disclose communications data to authorities without a court order.

In addition, the country’s authorities decreed that companies had to keep telephone conversations, text messages and electronic correspondence for up to 6 months, and their Internet browsing history for 30 days. Apart from this, SORM works on communications systems with an independent censorship system, which Russia has developed to block access to certain websites.

Social groups as well as lawyers and activists have criticized the Putin government for using SORM to spy on rivals and critics, saying it is now almost certainly being used to uncover anti-war dissidents.

Carrier docs details how to connect to SORM

For the past decade, the Russian government has taken cyber espionage seriously, and telecommunications equipment providers were legally required to offer a gateway for espionage. So, if Nokia did not comply with what was asked of it, surely one of its competitors would end up doing it. As of 2020, Nokia was already providing hardware and services to the MTS network, according to carrier documents.

The project documentation, signed by Nokia personnel, included a schematic of the network that reflected how data and mobile traffic should flow to SORM. Also, in annotated photos you can see a cable labeled SORM connected to network equipment, apparently documenting the work of Nokia engineers. The company carried out SORM-related tasks in at least 12 Russian cities, according to the documents, which also show how it linked the network to the surveillance system.

On the other hand, he worked with the Russian company Malvin(subsidiary of Citadel, owned by oligarch Alisher Usmanov), one of the companies that is responsible for manufacturing SORM hardware that the FSB uses. One of this company’s documents showed information intended for their partners, focused on making sure they had inserted the correct parameters to get SORM working on switching hardware.

Apart from this, he reminded them that they had to notify Malvin technicians of passwords, usernames and IP addresses. Other documents specify which cables, routers, and ports to use to connect the surveillance system. The network maps also show how network equipment from other companies, including Cisco, connects to the SORM boxes.

Several flowcharts also show how the data would be transmitted to Moscow and to FSB offices across Russia, where agents are tasked with searching citizens’ communications without them knowing they are doing so. In addition, it is unknown what this particular system is used for, since the information related to it is secret. Only some data has been leaked in court trials, apart from those obtained by civil groups and journalists.

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