The Kremlin has entered the chat

1 year ago
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in the cold, On a clear afternoon on February 24, 2022 — the day Vladimir Putin’s forces launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine — a handful of Russian opposition politicians gathered in front of St. Petersburg’s majestic Law, Order and Security building. They came to formally request permission to hold a rally against the war, which they knew would be denied. The group included Marina Matsapulina, a 30-year-old vice-chair of the Libertarian Party of Russia. Matsapulina understood that the meeting was a symbolic gesture and that it involved serious risks.

Nine days later, Matsapulina woke up at about 7 am to the fact that someone was knocking on the door of her apartment. She crept up to the entrance, but was too frightened to look through the peephole, and retreated back to her bedroom. The beating lasted two hours, as Matsapulina informed seven friends from her group in a private Telegram group chat. “I don’t think they will tear it apart,” she wrote eagerly.

This article will appear in the March 2023 issue. Subscribe to WIREPhoto: Art Streiber

But at 9:22 am, she heard a much louder noise. She only had time to lock her phone before the door buckled. Matsapulina’s bed was surrounded by eight people. Among them were, she recalls, two city police officers, a two-man special forces team with machine guns and shining flashlights in her face, and two agents either from the Center for Combating Extremism, or from the Federal Security Service, or from the FSB, the successor to the KGB. . . The officers ordered her to lie face down on the floor.

They told Matsapulina that she was suspected of sending an email to the police station with a false bomb threat. But when she was taken to the investigation department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, she says, a police officer asked if she knew the real reason for the detention. She guessed what kind of “political activity” it was. He nodded and asked, “Do you know how we knew you were home?”

“As?”

She says the officer told her that investigators were monitoring her private Telegram chats while she was writing them. “Here you were, writing to your friends in the chat,” she recalls his words. He continued to dispassionately quote several Telegram messages she had written from her bed, word for word. “It is unlikely that they will break it,” he quoted.

“So,” he said, “we knew you were there.”

Matsapulina was speechless. She tried to hide her shock, hoping to learn more about how they got access to her messages. But the officer did not elaborate.

When she was released two days later, Matsapulina learned from her lawyer that on the morning she was arrested, police had searched the homes of about 80 other people associated with the opposition and arrested 20 people, charging each with terrorism related to the alleged threat. explosion. A few days later, Matsapulina packed her things and boarded a flight to Istanbul.

In April, having reached Armenia safely, Matsapulina tweeted about the episode. She ruled out the possibility that anyone in her tight-knit group was collaborating with the security forces (by then they had all left Russia as well), which left two possible explanations for how the officers read her private messages on Telegram. First, they installed some kind of malware on her phone, such as the infamous Pegasus program from NSO Group. From what she learned, the expensive software was reserved for high-level purposes and was unlikely to be used for a middle-level figure in an unregistered party of about 1,000 members across the country.

Another “unpleasant” explanation, she wrote, “I think is obvious to everyone.” The Russians had to consider the possibility that Telegram, a supposedly anti-authoritarian app co-founded by fickle St. Petersburg native Pavel Durov, was now complying with legal demands from the Kremlin.

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