Unwanted communications - Newspaper Kommersant No. 46 (7491) dated 03/20/2023
Until the end of March, employees of the internal political block of the presidential administration (AP) are recommended to change their iPhones, if they use them, to smartphones of other brands and with a different operating system. According to Kommersant, this information was brought to the attention of officials at the beginning of the month. According to a Kommersant source who is aware of this decision, it is possible that the Presidential Administration will even purchase new secure phones for its employees to make it easier for them to give up American technology. An interlocutor close to the Presidential Administration says that officials of regional domestic political blocs will receive similar recommendations. Such measures are pragmatic, but it is important to strike a balance between information security and employee productivity, experts say.
Employees of the internal political bloc of the Presidential Administration need to get rid of the iPhone by the beginning of April: they were instructed to do so at a seminar held in early March in the Moscow region. This was told to Kommersant by several sources who were present at the event. “iPhone is everything. Either throw it away or give it to the kids. Everyone will have to do this in March,” says one of them. According to another interlocutor of Kommersant, at first a discussion arose among the seminar participants about the need for such a measure, but the first deputy head of the presidential administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, who oversees domestic policy, put an end to the discussion. He also set a deadline for his employees to replace the iPhone - April 1. A Kommersant source who is aware of the implementation of this order adds that the Kremlin may purchase new secure smartphones for its employees. A source close to the Presidential Administration heard that the ban on the use of Apple equipment will also apply to officials involved in domestic politics in regional administrations.
The conditional internal political block of the Presidential Administration includes four departments: for domestic policy, for public projects, for ensuring the activities of the State Council, for the development of information and communication technologies and communications infrastructure. Employees of the first three departments will be engaged in the 2024 presidential election campaign, preparations for which, as Kommersant previously reported, were intensified at the beginning of 2023.
According to Kommersant's sources, the requirement to abandon the iPhone is due to security considerations: in their opinion, these gadgets are more susceptible to hacking and espionage by Western experts compared to other smartphones. One of the interlocutors also adds that in return, the AP employees were recommended to purchase phones with Android operating systems, its Chinese counterparts or Aurora. The latter was developed by the Russian company Open Mobile Platform, a subsidiary of PJSC Rostelecom.
It should be noted that since the end of last year, the Russian government has been discussing with market participants the prospects for building a sovereign mobile ecosystem in Russia, which will be based on technologies independent of Western IT giants. OS "Aurora" was developed in this logic. Kirill Menshov, Vice President for Information Technology at Rostelecom, noted in an interview in 2022 that Aurora “contributes to ensuring the technological sovereignty of the state through a secure mobile environment and meets all the requirements of regulators in the field of national security and information protection.” Kommersant's sources in the Russian IT market say that "there are several non-public instructions of the president regarding Aurora." According to the project website, at the moment the sale of mobile devices on this OS is carried out only to corporate and government customers.
This is not the first time the federal government has given officials guidance on their electronic communications. In June 2022, Kommersant reported on Dmitry Chernyshenko's instruction to the head of the Ministry of Digital Transformation, Maksut Shadayev, in which the Deputy Prime Minister drew the attention of governors and federal executive bodies to "the need to use exclusively domestic instant messaging tools within the framework of official activities." A little later, Russian officials were advised to abandon the use of Zoom in favor of the domestic Trueconf.
Natalia Kasperskaya, President of the Infowatch Group of Companies, Head of the Domestic Software Association of Software Developers, notes that any modern device can send information in different directions that are completely opaque to the user. And often, to get information about a person, you don’t even need to install any spyware, since most applications work through the cloud. If the user is “taken into development”, then additional applications are installed on his smartphone to obtain “deep information”, the expert explains: “Their installation is illegal and not entirely trivial. As a rule, the device requires the user to "nod" to confirm the installation. Although OS or smartphone manufacturers can do this without consent. The more Russian there is in the device, the less likely it is that information will go to enemy states, and in this regard, the domestic OS has an advantage over the foreign one, Ms. Kaspersky continues. “But neither option gives guarantees against leaks. Modern smartphones are basically designed as spy devices: they collect, store and aggregate information and can transmit it in any direction. And it is impossible to understand where the device transmits data, because it transmits them in packets, and the user cannot track what happens to them next, ”concludes Natalya Kasperskaya.
Political scientist Nikolai Mironov believes that the ban on the iPhone for the Presidential Administration stems "purely for security reasons." “After all, there is no mass rejection of "unfriendly" brands, they continue to be used where it does not pose a threat of data leakage. So I don’t see politics here, a purely pragmatic solution,” the expert notes.
There is never too much security, and smartphones can really create the prerequisites for retrieving information, and iPhones are not exclusive to these threats, says political scientist Vladimir Shemyakin. But at the same time, according to him, it is important to strike a balance between security and productivity, because the employees of the Presidential Administration need good Internet access, and various instant messengers and social networks for official tasks. And the more secure the phone is, the more often it is limited in functionality, the expert reminds: “The main thing is that it doesn’t work out like with super-complex passwords that are impossible not only to crack, but also to remember, so you have to stick a cheat sheet on the back of the keyboard.”