In December 2020, a Bellingcat investigation into the apparent attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny revealed the identities of Kremlin secret service agents who are believed to have stalked the Russian opposition leader for years, before he was poisoned with the powerful nerve agent Novichok.
The Netherlands-based news organization’s reporting stood out not only because of its findings, but also because of the methods the journalists used to unearth new evidence related to the August 2020 attack. Bellingcat specializes in open-source data gathering, and much of the personal information identifying the Russian intelligence operatives was purchased via bots on the popular messaging app Telegram. Since the investigation was published, the Russian government has made numerous attempts to block access to dozens of similar tools. It is also trying to make their usage illegal on privacy grounds.
Christo Grozev is Bellingcat’s lead Russia investigator, focusing on security threats and the weaponization of information. His investigations include the 2018 Salisbury poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, for which he won the European Press Prize.
We talked about how the Russian government’s crackdown on Telegram is limiting the work of investigative reporters.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity
Coda Story: For those who are not familiar with the method of buying data online, can you briefly explain why it’s so crucial for investigative journalists?
Christo Grozev: In Russia and other former Soviet countries, there has been a lot of leaked personal data over the years. It Is consolidated in different databases, which contain millions of personal records.
There is a thriving market of Telegram bots that provide access to a large collection of these databases. So, people are making a business out of providing access to anybody who wants to buy a subscription. For a couple of euros a month, you can check a person’s phone number or a person’s car registration number and get information from all the different leaked databases.
You can also contact a data trader on a Telegram channel, who offers information from current police databases. For anywhere between 10 and 100 euros, depending on what you’re after, you can get somebody’s passport records, which also includes a photograph. On the most expensive end, you might be able to get the list of passengers on a particular flight, or even the metadata from phone records.
Can you give some more examples?
A colleague from a German newspaper asked us to find a Russian phone number that had appeared in some strange transactions involving sensitive military equipment in Germany. I looked up that number in one of the Telegram bots, it gave me the name of the owner, the passport number and the personal tax number of the person. Then, by using another bot that has access to the public state database of companies, I found that person was the chairman of the association of former Security Officials of Russia.
You can use the same method to find the license plate of a vehicle. Then, you can use another bot to find out the parking fees paid for that car and also the traffic fines. Then, you can try to recreate its route.
One of the investigations you conducted at Bellingcat revealed the names of the FSB agents who are believed to have poisoned Navalny. Many say that got the Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor interested in Telegram and the bots that journalists use. Since then, there have been several attempts to block them and to make their use illegal. Does that impact your work?
I definitely can confirm that, since the Navalny investigation, we have seen a huge crackdown, not only on Telegram bots, but also on the data traders. There have been, I would say, more than 10 closures of bots in the past six months. Yes, there will be attacks, but I cannot imagine how this industry, which is based on previously leaked data, can ever be silenced, because it’s all out there.
If buying data through Telegram becomes impossible, what will you do? How much will that limit the scope of your investigations?
Even now, our scope is limited, compared to what we had before. It’s partly self-imposed, because of what the government has done to some of the data traders. We’ve seen them being arrested illegally, kidnapped, tortured and then forced to confess that they cooperated with us, even when they had no idea to whom they were selling data. This is a very high moral burden for us.
This is only one way that the Russian government seeks to limit the use of technology and access to information. Others include blocking VPNs, suing YouTube and Twitter, and arresting journalists. In the lead-up to September’s elections, will there be an escalation?
I do expect significant new limitations of online freedoms in Russia in the months before the elections. In fact, we’ve received tip-offs from members of law enforcement, telling us to expect more and more censorship, including the closure of online media. The Russian government understands that it can only carry on by inconveniencing society, because a large part of it understands what’s happening.