Putin on telephone

Forbidding soldiers to talk on the phone doesn’t improve security

Russia’s Ministry of Defense has introduced some new restrictions on the use of telephones for its personnel. The motivation seems to be to save money on the phone bills and to improve information security. That reports Kommersant. But the consequences may well be the opposite.

Obviously, phone conversations are a source of information leaks, and there is an argument for restricting the use of the civilian phone networks for military communications. However, the actual restrictions seem mostly aimed at making work complicated for the employees, which is a terrible security strategy.

Military personnel will be sorted into five categories, and depending on their category they will be allowed a certain number of minutes or money to spend on telephone calls every month. When the limit of either minutes or rubles is reached, the phone connection is closed until the beginning of next month. In addition to this, units are required to keep a detailed journal of all phone calls.

Every month the unit must make an analysis of the conducted phone calls. Who called whom about what for how long and at what time? This has to be filed in a report. If calls are identified that are not related to government business, an administrative investigation must be conducted to figure out how much money it cost. According to Kommersant, the Ministry of Defense has produced an example where a unit makes an administrative investigation into the suspected waste of government resources to private phone calls for a value of 316 rubles (€4.22). That seems like an awfully small amount to spend administrative resources on investigating.

Putin on telephone
Putin using an old school telephone. Photo: Kremlin.ru.

Most military personnel will not be allowed a direct connection to the phone network at all. Commanders of military units will be allowed up to 60 minutes or 500 rubles per month. A branch or regiment commander will be allowed up to 120 minutes or 850 rubles per month. Only 11 persons including defense minister Sergey Shoygu will have unlimited phone calls.

All in all this sounds like a bureaucratic headache. If I were to guess to possible security angles to this, I can think of these two:

  1. To limit the overall number of phone calls to make it easier for the Russian security apparatus to spy on itself.
  2. To compel military personnel to using more secure means of communication.

Both these things fit nicely with the initiatives that Russia has taken recently. A few months ago the Defense Ministry decided to solve the problems that smartphones present, so they forbade them altogether and produced a list of 11 approved models of dumb phones that soldiers can use. They also recently introduced restrictions on soldiers’ freedom to have a social media presence.

The official Russian approach to security seems to be to forbid technologies that introduce vulnerabilities. But security is also a question of enabling effective business operations. In the end, employees in the Russian military have a job to do. If the ministry and security services make it too complicated to get things done, people are going to work around the system.

As an officer said to Kommersant back in February, nobody within the Ministry of Defense actually intended to give up their smartphones. “You buy a dumb phone to carry around at all times, so you can show it to your superior if you have to. And your normal phone you keep on silent mode in your pocket”.

If employees move their work-related communications to their private telephones, the result will be less security, not more.




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