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Want to Use Public Wi-Fi in Russia? Let's See Some ID

Russia will soon require a passport from those wishing to use public Wi-Fi. Images mixed by author.

Russia will soon require a passport from those wishing to use public Wi-Fi. Images mixed by author.

Internet users in Russia won't be able to use Wi-Fi in public spots anonymously any longer. The Russian government is now going to require individuals accessing public Wi-Fi hotspots to present their passports or IDs. Personal data will be recorded and stored by the Internet provider, along with information about the devices used, including their unique MAC-addresses. According to Russian media, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has already signed the corresponding government decree (the full text is also available on the government's legislation portal).

The decree also obliges wireless hotspot owners – restaurants, cafes, libraries – to provide their ISPs with lists of those who used their public connections, disclosing their names, addresses and ID numbers. Such lists should be updated every three months or so.

Rambler & Co's government relations director, Matvey Alekseev thought this decree was a bit strange, since Wi-Fi coverage in Moscow, for instance, extends to parks and even streets, making physical identification difficult.

Идентификация пользователя при доступе к Сети через Wi-Fi в общественных местах неосуществима. Только в Москве покрытие открытого Wi-Fi охватывает все парки и места общественного доступа. Не думаю, что все, кто придет в парк Горького, будут показывать свои паспорта.

Identifying users when they access the Internet over Wi-Fi in public spaces is impossible. In Moscow alone open Wi-Fi covers all parks and public access spots. I don't think that everyone who comes to Gorky Park will show their passports.

The need to store personal data also means that all cafes or parks must apply for a “personal data operator” license with Roskomnadzor or pay a fine if they fail to do so.

Government officials, however, think the decree is especially necessary, since it allows to curb the shady shenanigans of suspicious persons in the current state of “information warfare.” So says first deputy head of the Duma committee on information politics, information technology and communications Vadim Dengin:

Речь идет о безопасности. Идет информационная война. Анонимное подключение к интернету в общественных местах позволяет осуществлять противозаконные действия безнаказанно. Найти нарушителя бывает весьма сложно. Американцы боятся войны, сейчас им лучше всего воевать в информационном пространстве. Они усилили свой холдинг «Голос Америки». Те, кто заинтересован в дестабилизации, пытаются насытить Сеть мошенниками, фашистами и экстремистами. Всё, что связано с интернетом, должно быть идентифицировано.

We're talking about security. There's an information war going on. Anonymous connection to the Internet in public places allows to engage in illegal activity with impunity. It can be very difficult to find the perpetrator. Americans are afraid of war, right now it's best for them to wage war in the information sphere. They have beefed up the “Voice of America” holding. Those interested in destabilization are trying to saturate the web with crooks, fascists and extremists. Everything connected to the Internet must have identification.

Updated on August 8, 2014.

Since the initial announcement, there has been much confusion about what qualifies as a “public Wi-Fi hotspot.” Soon after the news broke, a Moscow city official claimed that the decree only applied to “collective access points” run as part of the state's universal communications services network (namely those in Russia's postal service locations), and that Wi-Fi access in parks, cafes, subway, universities and schools did not require identification.

The Russian communications Ministry later weighed in to clarify that the requirement only applies to hotspots set up by network operators (and not private access spots set up by individuals for personal use). The Ministry also explained that operators providing access don't necessarily require a passport or ID, but can also ask the user to fill in a form or send a text message and hand over their identifying information.

Dmitri Medvedev's press-secretary, Natalya Timakova, also commented on the new initiative and suggested that the decree's requirements might be modified depending on how its practical application will proceed. Hopefully, this might mean the decree will gain a bit more clarity on who is actually required to collect users’ personal data in exchange for Wi-Fi access. TJournal notes that in its present form, the decree does not explain how the identifying information will be verified, which means network operators providing public wireless Internet access will have to trust whatever information users choose to hand over.

As Russia follows in the footsteps of some of its former Soviet neighbours, like Uzbekistan, which already requires user identification for access to public Internet connections, we can only guess what the Kremlin will think of next as its officials become more and more paranoid about the potential of a free Internet.

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