Russian President Vladimir Putin responded on live television to a question posed by American fugitive Edward Snowden about whether Russia spies on its citizens using a mass surveillance program.
Speaking during a broadcast of the state-owned RT television network, Putin denied that Russia has a clandestine government surveillance system similar to the one Snowden exposed in the United States.
“We don’t have a mass system of such interception,” the Russian president said.
Putin was responding to a video message from Snowden, who sought asylum in the country after fleeing the U.S. and Taiwan. He is wanted in the U.S. for leaking information about classified National Security Agency programs that allow government intelligence officials to capture e-mails and other digital information on potential terrorist threats.
“I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance,” Snowden said, according to a YouTube video of the broadcast.
“So I’d like to ask you, does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals and do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies rather than subjects under surveillance,” he said. “Thank you.”
The question appeared to be pre-recorded, but RT reported that Snowden “was appearing via a video link from an undisclosed location in Russia.” Nevertheless, the question-and-answer session seemed entirely rehearsed.
According to a translator, Putin replied, “Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy. I used to work for an intelligence service. We are going to talk the same language.”
Putin said Russia’s intelligence collection is “strictly regulated by law” and that court approval is required before using “special equipment” to intercept phone calls or e-mails. He went so far as to suggest that Russia doesn’t have as much money or the same eavesdropping technology as the U.S.
“We don’t have a mas system of such interception,” he said. “According to our law, it cannot exist.”
At the same time, however, Putin hinted that intelligence officials do have the “technical means” to respond to criminals and terrorists who use technology for illegal or criminal purposes.
“Of course, we do some efforts like that, but we do not have a mass scale, uncontrollable efforts like that,” he said.
The claims will undoubtedly be dismissed by many U.S. intelligence officials, who regard Russia, along with China, as one of the biggest players in cyber espionage.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has described Russia as an “advanced” actor in cyberspace. A congressional report from last year also cited a news report indicating “cyber-spies from Russia and China had penetrated the U.S. electrical grid, leaving behind software.”
In addition, Russia is also suspected of leading cyber attacks against Ukraine last month before annexing the Crimean peninsula.