The editor-in-chief of a Yekaterinburg-based news agency URA.ru is trying to sue the country’s largest mobile operator MTS over alleged wiretapping of her telephone conversations, in a bid to set a precedent against what she says is Russia's ingrained habit of violating privacy at will.
In a complaint filed with the city's Leninsky District court on August 15, Aksana Panova claims the Urals branch of MTS violated a key condition of its service contract which obliges the operator to protect the personal data of its users and ensure the confidentiality of subscriber information.
Panova is also suing the Regional Network Information Center or Ru-Center, to force it to reveal the identity of the Internet service provider which allegedly published her telephone conversations.
The URA.ru editor said her aim is to set a precedent that could remind both the public and government that the time-honored habit of mass wiretapping of phones and unauthorized opening of mail “is wild, barbaric and uncivilized.”
The court has not yet decided if the case will be brought to a hearing.
The Russian criminal code requires a court to authorize wiretapping by law enforcement bodies in cases where content of a message may later be presented later as evidence. Last year, the courts issued 466,152 warrants for tapping phones and intercepting e-mails, almost double the 265,937 that were issued in 2007, according to Supreme Court statistics published in June.
Andrei Soldatov, an intelligence analyst at Agentura.ru, said the increase in tapping was the result of legislation passed in 2010 permitting security officials to check people's e-mails and bug their phones merely only on suspicion they may be committing a crime. Violators potentially face jail terms for illegally intercepting calls, but they actually face little likelikood of doing time, as a new law signed by former President Dmitry Medvedev in March last year banned minimal prison sentences for 68 criminal offenses, including illegal wiretapping and hooliganism.
Panova said on URA.ru she has never been the subject of a criminal investigation and would not have expected a court to sanction a wiretap on her telephone conversations. She said, however, that she often makes critical comments about local politicians in conversations with her friends, family and relatives. Audio recordings of some of her telephone conversations in which she did so were published recently on a number of Internet sites and will form the basis for the current lawsuit, she said.
"I've been told many times - including by top state officials - that some people were eavesdropping on my phone conversations," Panova said. "I was told by Governor Yevgeny Kuyvashev and Deputy Prosecutor General Yury Ponomarev as well as by senior police officers. The printouts of my phone calls have been shown to me over many years. I kind-of got used to it and tried not to live a double life.”
The publication of audio recordings of her conversations has given her the final proof that illegal tapping has taken place, she said. “Now there is documentary evidence that wiretaps are actually being conducted, even though everyone understands that it’s neither sanctioned nor legal,” Panova said. “Everyone pretends this is the normal order of things. We now have a chance to openly and publicly examine this trend and try to understand on what basis they eavesdrop on and then publish individual conversations."
Panova said the Ural branch of MTS told her prior to her going to court that the company "has no technical ability whatsoever" to record telephone calls or in-person conversations, but confirmed that the special services have such a capability. MTS also said it had conducted an internal investigation and found "no evidence of illegal acts that could lead to the disclosure of private information protected by law." Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) advised Panova to file a complaint to them about the tapping of her private phone calls if necessary.
Some of the private conversations published online in recent weeks were between Panova and Yevgeny Roizman, a former State Duma deputy who runs drug rehab clinics in the Sverdlovsk region. "When I found out that my conversations were tapped, I wrote a complaint to the Deputy Prosecutor General Yury Ponomarev. Six months later, and all I got was the runaround,” Roizman told RIA Novosti. “If we are free people in a free country, we just have to resist this with all the legal means at our disposal.”