Yesterday in Moscow Russian authorities arrested Andrey Zayakin, one of the editors of the “Dissernet” investigative project. The project, which relied on a volunteer network to investigate plagiarism cases, had long been a thorn in the side of the Russian political establishment due to its revelations regarding plagiarism committed by various Russian officials.
Zayakin, however, was officially not arrested due to one of these reports. He was arrested because he made a 1,000-ruble (~US$16) donation to the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), founded by the jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny. The likely reason why the authorities know that Zayakin transferred money to FBK is that his name was in a database of FBK supporters, which was leaked to the public in August 2021 on 4chan and subsequently on the top-tier XSS forum. The database contained the personal information of more than 70,000 people.
This is the first case, in which the authorities are using the database as evidence to crack down on a prominent civil society figure, but it is hardly the last one. In the past 18 months, but particularly since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has been tightening control over the country’s information environment and broadened repression to virtually any form of dissent. This has also involved a crackdown on online marketplaces offering sensitive information that can be used to expose corruption or embarrass officials.
However, the leak of databases containing information on opposition supporters will likely continue to be tolerated or even encouraged. As the authorities broaden the legal grounds of oppression, information previously deemed innocuous can be used as a way to jail opposition personalities. The foundation, which published countless reports on the corruption of leading Russian officials, including memorable exposes of fortunes of President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, was declared an “extremist organization” in 2021 and liquidated by the orders of the Russian Ministry of Justice.
In September 2021 Flashpoint pointed out how this leak fit into a series of such incidents that were weaponized by the Kremlin against Navalny’s supporters. In August 2019, for instance, a leaked database of Navalny’s alleged supporters appeared on Telegram in the midst of pro-democracy protests in Moscow, with the apparent attempt to intimidate protesters; in April 2021 a database containing information on people who used a platform to signal that they are ready to protest in support of Navalny, was leaked by attackers and subsequently enriched with information that enabled the authorities to harass Navalny supporters. Many in Moscow were fired from their jobs. (Navalny’s team blamed this latter leak on an employee accused of having been recruited by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). It has since emerged that the FSB indeed cultivated several agents in the FBK.)