How Snowden's Revelations Are Helping Russia

With the United States no longer able to impose its position on Internet security and governance in the wake of the NSA spying scandal, Moscow is stepping into the void.

Snowden last month in Moscow
Snowden last month in Moscow
Elena Chernenko

Until now, the biggest winner after Edward Snowden’s revelations appears to have been China. The discovery of secret documents revealing that the United States spied on Internet users around the world has given Beijing a powerful argument against the US charges that it is hacking in to US computer networks.

But there are also signs that Russia is benefitting from Snowden’s revelations. The most concrete example was the United Nations General Assembly's approval last week of Moscow’s resolution regarding international norms on information security.

The non-binding resolution includes a number of principles that are important to Russia. First is the use of the term “information security” in a very broad sense, which Russia had supported in opposition to the much narrower US understanding of “cybersecurity.” It is more than a difference in terminology: the different expressions reflect fundamentally opposing approaches to the security problems arising from the Internet. The US is primarily worried about physical threats to the network (like viruses), while Russia is primarily worried about potentially dangerous content (that would destabilize the political situation).

Secondly, the document calls for the development of international norms and rules for the behavior of governments in the sphere of information technology. Russia has long insisted that the current norms were not enough to resolve international cyber conflicts. Russia introduced a similar project to the UN two years ago, but it lacked widespread support. In contrast, the current resolution had 40 co-sponsors, and the representatives from Pakistan even said it should be made stronger, suggesting that cyber warfare technology be classified as weapons of mass destruction.

Moral authority

Third, the new resolution calls for additional study of potential threats in the information landscape. Previously, those threats were thought to be limited to military, criminal and terrorist uses. But Russia has been calling for recognition of the threat that the Internet and mobile devices can be used in intelligence gathering. The US was not mentioned by name in the resolution, but it was still clearly directed at them.

Lastly, Russia managed to increase the number of countries on the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Information Security from 15 to 20. Russia previously only had two allies - China and Belorussia - but now it will have the possibility of bringing other supporters on the panel.

Before Snowden’s revelations, Western countries saw the Russian initiative as a desire for censorship and government control of the Internet. Now even the resolutions preamble, which talks about respecting human rights and freedom, seems to play into Russia’s hands. Russia can rightly say that it has not violated those rights, while the US has.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said, as the resolution was adopted, that “Russia is working under the assumption that human rights should not go against other important principles in international law, such as respect for national sovereignty.” That should be taken to mean that governments maintain sovereign rights over the national segment of the Internet - a theory that Washington absolutely does not agree with.

But the success of Russia’s resolution does not mean that the demands contained in the resolution will become reality, since the General Assembly resolutions are really just recommendations. Christopher Painter, the US State Department cybersecurity coordinator has already said that there is no rush to develop international norms on government behavior in the digital world.

Moscow is convinced, however, that Snowden’s revelations have made it harder for the US to impose its positions on the digital world. “The US has lost its moral authority on that subject,” said one Russian diplomatic source.

That’s a point of view that American experts happen to share. At a recent international conference on cyber security, Hoover Institution expert Abe Sofaer warned that disclosures about the details and size of the US surveillance destroyed Washington’s power to preserve the current model of Internet management. (The US considers it important that business and non-profit interests also have a say in the development of the Internet, not just governments).

"We are losing leverage to Russia, China and other countries that want to give governments and the UN major rights in the digital environment,” Sofaer said. “It's terrible.”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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