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[liberationtech] New report on Internet Censorship and Surveillance in Turkmenistan

Rafal Rohozinski r.rohozinski at
Sat Jan 5 15:46:19 PST 2013

Hi Colin,

Just about to rest any doubt about this, I meant "clandestine" as a synonym
of "in secret". Likewise, by "debriefs" I simply mean having long in-depth
discussions with individual designed to accrue as many data points as
possible about past events, or circumstances. None of this is particularly
privileged to the IC, these are tried-and-true methods used by a wide range
of investigators (including those involved in fraud investigations, police
work, product research, marketing, or experimental work) as well
as investigative journalists, and it usually yields good results over time.

With respect to reporting on signatures, and establishing Open Data  on
censorship and surveillance through the publication of technical data, yes,
that's the intention. In some cases, and I think Morgan's  (et al) work on
FinFisher is a good example, it will be possible to publish the technical
protocols/signatures for surveillance tools. In other cases, especially for
in-line surveillance tools, there will be no signature except for the fact
that it may be detectable by the presence of unusual infrastructure and
verified through human sources or documentation. The latter  is quite
important, because of the vast majority of cases there will be some
documentation somewhere: in law, security regulations, commercial or
marketing documentation, or otherwise, that indicates that a surveillance
technology is being used, or considered. So perhaps not technical
signatures in the malware sense, but signatures in a broader sense.

For censorship technologies it's a bit more straightforward because
presence or absence is pretty straightforward to establish. The tough part
is to see whether you can identify specific techniques/products from their
technical characteristics. Again, human sources are usually best to
establish a degree of ground truth, or at least verify/validate what's
visible in the technical domain.

We are waiting to hear back from some sources of funding, and if we are
successful, we will be making a broader announcement about this initiative


Sent by PsiPhone mobile. Please excuse typos or other oddities.

On 2013-01-05, at 5:58 PM, Collin Anderson <collin at>

> In the case of SORM-II, it also has a very distinct signature which is
visible if you are sitting in line with the system...
> Our intention with the testing platform is to contribute to the creation
of censorship and surveillance Open Data...

That's excellent to hear, does SecDev intend to release data on these
signatures of SORM systems and other such surveillance products? "Clandestine
collection" and "debriefs" all seem so surreptitious and privileged to the
IC, however, technical data would clearly be of democratic benefit to a
number of researchers on this list.


On Sat, Jan 5, 2013 at 2:12 PM, Rafal Rohozinski <r.rohozinski at>wrote:

> Morgan,
> Thanks for your note. I use the term "interview" euphemistically.
> Obviously we used a much more sophisticated set of methods including in
> depth debriefs with former employees, contractors, suppliers as well as
> other forms of clandestine collection. The point is that we were able to
> get a very detailed picture of how surveillance is carried out within the
> Ministry of communications, by whom, and with what means. This includes
> people that had access to the special rooms that are designated for
> surveillance in telephone switches throughout the former Soviet Union. All
> the people we talked to, directly, or indirectly,  that had detailed
> technical knowledge of how surveillance is conducted in an operational
> manner were unable to confirm, or even suggest that these two systems were
> being used operationally. In the case of SORM-II, it also has a very
> distinct signature which is visible if you are sitting in line with the
> system.
> By contrast, we were able to confirm these details in other CIS countries.
> In some cases it was quite easy because security officials are quite open
> about their use of surveillance technology for counterterrorism, criminal
> investigations et cetera. There are also laws on the books that govern how
> these technologies are used, and by whom, and therefore its possible to
> have a relatively open discussion if you know who to talk to, and how. I
> would say , however, that our interviewees have exceptionally privileged
> access, and therefore are able to have these discussions with the right
> people.
> Is it possible that these techniques are insufficient to detect traces of
> close hold activities? Undoubtably, yes. However, when you do enough
> asking, through enough different means, you usually come up with at least a
> shadow, or a trace. In this case, everything came up as negative.
> I'd be interested in further material that could help us detect FINFISHER
> at a technical level. We do operate a testing platform  and certainly
> calibrating it to detect or scan for these signatures would be very helpful
> given that we are present in a large number of countries. Our intention
> with the testing platform is to contribute to the creation of  censorship
> and surveillance Open Data, so having it routinely scan for known
> signatures of surveillance products would certainly be a great addition to
> the overall effort.
> Cheers,
> Rafal
> Sent by PsiPhone mobile. Please excuse typos or other oddities.
> On 2013-01-05, at 3:38 PM, Morgan Marquis-Boire <
> morgan.marquisboire at> wrote:
> Hi Rafal,
> It is interesting that in your efforts talking to officials you were
> unable to elicit admissions of operational use of surveillance software.
> I'm not able to comment on the human elements of your interviews but the
> technical elements of the work used to enumerate the use of FinFisher in
> Turkmenistan are reproducible.
> FinFisher malware samples were reverse engineered which lead to
> enumeration of the command and control protocol. Knowledge of this protocol
> was then used to scan for FinSpy master servers. The hashes to the
> FinFisher samples were published as were the IPs of the servers. We (Bill
> Marczak and myself) were not the only ones doing work in this area.  Boston
> based security company Rapid7 also used similar techniques and we found
> that a technical replication of their work was reasonably straightforward.
> If your team has had any problems replicating these results, I'd be to
> happy to direct them toward relevant materials.
> -Morgan
> On Fri, Jan 4, 2013 at 8:41 AM, Rafal Rohozinski <r.rohozinski at>wrote:
>> Hi Eva,
>> Thanks for your note and good question.
>> The simple answer is that we could find no compelling evidence beyond
>>  that reported by Privacy International, Citizen Lab and  the German news
>> report that FINFISHER  was being operationally employed in Turkmenistan.
>>  That's not for lack of looking. The report was built upon  interviews with
>> people that have first-hand experience at the Ministry of Communication and
>> Ministry of National Security, and civil society activists involved in
>> political and new media activity. While it  appears that a pilot project
>> may have been implemented sometime around 2010/11, we could find no
>> evidence (from sources inside the ministry) that it was  actually
>>  operationally employed,  nor were we able to track down any
>> samples/technical evidence from the activist/ opposition community.
>> We had a similar situation with SORM. Our sources indicated that SORM
>> equipment was installed on Turkmen core networks sometime in 2009.  Quite
>> likely, this equipment came by way of a assistance program run by the
>> Russian Ministry of Interior aimed at creating a CIS wide  monitoring
>> system for cybercrime/cyber terrorism (Operation Proxy).  However, we found
>> no evidence that the equipment was actually being used.
>> There may be reasons for this -  which are borne out through some of our
>> interview work in Turkmenistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.
>> First, the level of technical knowledge in government agencies and the
>> telecommunication ministry in Turkmenistan is quite low. In general, the
>> Ministry of  Communication has been very dependent on outside consultants
>> and companies to install equipment (Including HuaWei and NOKIA). Once it's
>>  installed, maintaining equipment is a challenge. As a result, generally
>> only be most basic default settings and capabilities are used.  For
>> example,  Turkmen telecom uses  equipment from Huawei and CISCO  that is
>> capable of  advanced DPI. However, these capabilities are barely used to
>> manage bandwidth and traffic. They  have not been used  to develop keyword
>> lists for blocking.  Blocking is still done by way of IP address and domain
>> name. (The same is true on mobile networks, where a Checkpoint firewall are
>> used to filter traffic by domain and IP).
>> Second, the Turkmen  security regime is pervasive, and as a result has
>> many more direct and simple ways of targeting " antisocial elements".
>> Online surveillance tends to be over-kill when they can easily accomplish
>> things through direct surveillance, informants and other forms of physical
>> controls.  We've also noted that in other Central Asia  countries  the
>> security forces tend to co-opt criminal hackers in order to target specific
>> individuals via electronic means. That means that the technical work is
>> done by someone who actually knows what they're doing, and the results are
>> more understandable and immediate to the security forces,  i.e., they can
>> ask questions and target the hacker to get at stuff they want to see.
>> It's also important not to forget that security/ intelligence forces are by
>> nature suspicious of anything outside of their control, including and
>> especially "foreign built" systems and software.
>> Third,  security forces in Turkmenistan are much more concerned about
>> opposition from radical groups, and criminal elements that they are with
>> civil society opposition movements.  That's because  civil society in
>> Turkmenistan is extremely  weak, and controllable through  arrest,
>> detention, harassment. Criminal and radical groups are a lot more
>> resilient, because  they are by design covert organizations and generally
>> because of their incentive system, which can be ideological, or financial,
>>  don't have the same fear of the regime, and, in the case of some criminal
>> structures can be embedded in  state structures. As a result, my own
>> observation is that  advanced surveillance means, (including SORM) are
>> treated as a "scarce resource" and are focused on high-value targets that
>> include criminal elements and radical groups.  A third group I'd add here
>> are members of the regime itself, which tend to be more of a threat to the
>> higher leadership than civil society groups.
>> Lastly,  as we point out in the report, the Turkmen authorities have an
>> ambivalent relationship to ICTs.  On the one hand, they recognize them as a
>> important element of national development, and also revenue generation for
>> the state ( and in particular, members of the elite).  On the other hand,
>> they've seen how these technologies can be leveraged by opposition groups
>> and so  are inclined towards imposing controls.  However, because
>>  Turkmenistan remains such a highly controlled society overall, the fear of
>>  civil society being mobilized through cyberspace is probably much less
>> than it would be elsewhere and as a result, thus far, the necessity for
>> surveillance has probably been less than in other Central Asian countries
>> where the opposition movement has had space to organize.
>> I think the last point to mention is that we've tried to keep this report
>> factual and based on verifiable information.  This means we had to make
>> some editorial choices.   I'd be happy to amend the report with a fuller
>> section on FINFISHER and would welcome any additional factual information
>> that can be provided by members of this group, or elsewhere.
>> Best wishes,
>> Rafal
>> On Jan 3, 2013, at 7:11 PM, Eva Galperin <eva at> wrote:
>> > Thank you for sharing your report, Rafal. I read it with great interest.
>> >
>> > I see that you devoted about a third of this report to Internet
>> > surveillance in Turkmenistan, but you don't mention Gamma or Finfisher
>> > even once. The discovery that Gamma International's products were being
>> > used to spy on citizens in over a dozen countries, including
>> > Turkmenistan, was a pretty major story last year. Was there a reason why
>> > you decided to leave it out of the report?
>> >
>> >
>> > ************************************************
>> > Eva Galperin
>> > International Freedom of Expression Coordinator
>> > Electronic Frontier Foundation
>> > eva at
>> > (415) 436-9333 ex. 111
>> > ************************************************
>> >
>> > On 1/2/13 9:01 AM, Rafal Rohozinski wrote:
>> >> The SecDev Group has released a study of Internet censorship and
>> surveillance in Turkmenistan.  The  report was commissioned and financially
>> supported by the Open Society Foundations.  It is posted on the ONI Website
>> , and can also be downloaded from here
>> >>
>> >> Neither Here Nor There: Turkmenistan’s Digital Doldrums
>> >>
>> >>
>> >> Abstract
>> >>
>> >> Turkmenistan is slowly emerging from decades of darkness. President
>> Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov has vowed to modernize the country by
>> encouraging the uptake of new technology for economic development and more
>> efficient governance. Hundreds of thousands of Turkmen citizens are now
>> online. However, the country faces serious challenges as it prepares to go
>> digital. Infrastructure is primitive, and public access is enforced by a
>> state monopoly. Slow speeds, exorbitant pricing, and technological
>> illiteracy all constitute major hurdles. A new study from the SecDev Group
>> highlights the ambivalent policies and practices that have left
>> Turkmenistan mired in the digital doldrums, torn between its desire to join
>> the worldwide web and its compulsion to control cyberspace.
>> >>
>> >>
>> >>
>> >> --
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> Seek not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful
> means. But seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them
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*Collin David Anderson* | @cda | Washington, D.C.

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