Lawful interception: the Russian approach

News & Analysis
Lawful interception: the Russian approach

In order to lawfully conduct communications surveillance (“lawful interception”) in the U.S. and Western Europe, a law enforcement agency must seek authorisation from a court and produce an order to a network operator or internet service provider, which is then obliged to intercept and then to deliver the requested information. In contrast, Russian Federal Security Service operatives (FSB) can conduct surveillance directly by utilising lawful interception equipment called SORM.


SORM is the Russia’s nationwide system of automated and remote legal interception infrastructure. SORM’s tactical and technical foundations were developed by a KGB research institute in the mid-1980s.1 Full implementation of the project only occurred in the early 1990s, however, when SORM was initially installed on analogue telephone lines. The Ministry of Communications signed off the first SORM-related document in 1992. It obliged operators to allow security services to listen in to telephone conversations and to intercept mail.

As new technologies developed, SORM did too. Today SORM-1 intercepts telephone traffic, including mobile networks, while SORM-2 is responsible for intercepting internet traffic, including VoIP. SORM-3 gathers information from all communication media, and offers long-term storage (three years), providing access to all user data.

Although in Russia eight law enforcement and security agencies are authorised to carry out operative investigative activities,2 it was the FSB that was put in charge of SORM. A presidential decree (891) in 1995 stipulated that ‘control over postal items, telegraphic and other communications ... shall be handed to the Federal Security Service...’. The same decree stipulated that unified central control points (or remote control points) were to be established for this purpose by the FSB. The first ones were established in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and later in other Russian cities, at regional intelligence services headquarters. A cable was laid from these points to the premises of the providers where special interception equipment had been installed. In this way, the FSB became responsible for installing the SORM equipment, while other intelligence services and the police gained access to the interception system via FSB remote points.

Since 2000 or thereabouts, however, the FSB have no longer been in sole charge of the technical side of SORM. Agentura.Ru’s research established that now the Interior Ministry, the Federal Prisons Service and the Federal Antidrug agency developed their own SORM sistems. 

Lawful interception statistics

According to figures published by the Supreme Court Justice Department, over the last five years the number of legal telephone intercepts alone has almost doubled. In 2011, for example, the police received authorisation from the courts to conduct 466,152 intercepts and recordings of phone calls, as well as intercepts of emails. 

There are a number of reasons for this increase:

  1. In 2011, new legislation designed to cut Russia’s prison population introduced new forms of punishment, such as community service, for less serious crime. In December 2011 existing legislation was altered to allow local Federal Prison Service departments to carry out operational investigative activity when ‘enforcing punishments where convicted criminals are not kept in isolation from society’.
  2. There has been an exponential growth in new technologies, including data retention facilities, which allow for endless possibilities for surveillance.
  3. In December 2010 the law No.404 –FZ, which regulates the work of the agencies carrying out pre-trial investigations, updated previous legislation by including in the clause on ‘Grounds for the instigation of operative investigative initiatives’ the words ‘and material verifying evidence statements about the crime’. Expert criminologists with whom we have consulted have confirmed that it could become a basis in law for increased phone hacking. "According to the Criminal Procedural Code, each evidence statement must be checked and positively confirmed before a charge is made," says Olga Shvarts,  a consultant at the World Bank who previously worked as an advisor to the Russian Parliament’s legislative committee and took part in the drafting of the revised Criminal Procedural Code. "This is a simple enough business, but it gives the police the right to conduct an investigation, including the recording of phone conversations, for example, without any intention of going ahead with a charge – they can then report that the evidence was not confirmed, but they will have got the information they were looking for."

Impact on the CIS states

The Soviet legacy and ongoing Russian influence can still be discerned in the CIS states by their continued use of Soviet and Russian terminology for surveillance measures.

The development of telecommunications in 1960s prompted the Soviet KGB to define the practices and rules governing surveillance operations. The department in charge of telecoms surveillance was called the KGB’s OTU (Operativno-Technicheskoye Upravlenie, or Operative Technical Department), and eavesdropping and surveillance operations were identified in official documentation as ORM. That Soviet-style euphemism means Operativno-Rozisknie meropriatiya, or Operative-Search Measures. The two terms, OTU and ORM, proved to be essential for the Soviet secret police in the decades to come.

In the 1990s the Russian FSB changed the name of its surveillance department to the UOTM (adding the word Measures to its title), but Belarus, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan proved more attached to the Soviet acronym OTU. Tajikistan and Kyrgystan followed the FSB, and adopted UOTM. The term ORM, or the Operative-Search Measures, was kept by all CIS countries.

Our investigations reveal that the Russian approach to lawful interception has been adopted in Belarus, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

SORM manufacturers

Listed below are some of the companies manufacturing SORM products. For more information on surveillance companies, see our Surveillance Industry Index.

International manufacturers3

Juniper Networks





Russian manufacturers

MFI Soft  (previously known as MERA). Key people: Alexander Ivanov, Oleg Faeberg, Konstantin Nikashov, Alexander Belyakov, Sergei Drozhilkin, Dmitry Sukhov (director of the SORM development department). The company's HQ is in Nizhny Novgorod, with the sales and customer relations department in Moscow. Outside of Russia, MFI Soft is represented by its partner "ALOE Systems", based in Canada. Products:

SORM-1 (intercepts telephone traffic, including mobile networks)

  1. SORMovich VoIP
  2. SORM for RTU
  3. SORM for Nortel
  4. SORM for BroadWorks
  5. SORM for Ericsson
  6. Tropa 3G
  7. Tropa-Concentrator
  8. SORM Dimetra-IP
  9. SORMovich-E1T

SORM-2 (responsible for intercepting internet traffic, including VoIP)

  1. APK SORMovich

SORM-3 (gathers information from all communication media, and offers long-term storage)

  1. IS SORM Yanvar (January)


NTC Protei. Key people: Vadim Sekeresh, Olga Kopaeva, Vasily Elagin. The company was founded in 1997, and now has a team of over 150 top IT and telecommunications professionals. Their headquarters is in St.Petersburg. SORM products:

  1. Converter SORM XSM
  2. Protocol-tester SORM TOR-4M
  3. Monitoring Point SORM (mobile device)
  4. Concentrator SORM LIMUX


IskraUralTEL. Key people: Vladislav Davydov, Robert Kuzmich, Bogran Zupan, Alexander Alimpiev. The company was founded as the joint Russian-Slovenian enterprise in Yekaterinburg in 1994. SORM products:

  1. SI3000CM
  2. SORM concentrator SI3000 ECM-2
  3. SORM programm commutator SI3000 SC

Peter-Service. Key people: Igor Gorkov, Andrei Tsvetkov, Alexei Kireev, Vladislav Shmidt. The company founded in 1992 in St.Petersburg. Company’s SORM products:



Norsi-Trans. Key people: Sergei Ovchinnikov. Founded in 1996, HQ in Moscow. Company's SORM products:

SORM-1 (intercepts telephone traffic, including mobile networks)

  1. Vitok-Ipte
  2. Vitok-SDH
  3.  Vitok-E1
  4.  Vitok-Concentrator

SORM-2 (responsible for intercepting internet traffic, including VoIP)

  1. VITOK-IP (SORM 2 and IPDR)
  2. 2x10G-PCIe

SORM-3 (gathers information from all communication media, and offers long-term storage)

  1. Vitok-3X
  2. Yahont-CXD
  3. Yahont


Signateck. Key people: Nikolay Naumov. The company was founded in 1993, with its headquarters in Novosibirsk. SORM products:

  1. Impuls-2 (SORM imitator)
  2. Impuls-3M
  3. Nevod
  4. MAG
  5. MAG Mini-SORM
  6. Lira (C, KP, N, 4000)


Rossiyskaya Korporatsia Sredstv Svyazi (RKSS). Key people: Igor Lopukhov. The company was founded in 2007 as subsidiary of the State corporation Rostekhnologii. SORM products:

  1. Security platform RSCB-X
  2. MPLS-router RS7750


Specialnie Technologie (Special Technologies) Key people: Mikhail Serov. Its headquarters are in St.Petersburg. SORM products:

  1. Omega (PU, punkt upravlenya – Management Point)

The company’s SORM products are recommended by the FSB.


RIANET. Its headquarters are in Moscow. Company’s SORM products:

  1.  RIANET


Malvin. Its headquarters is in Moscow. SORM products:

  1. Simulator of the monitoring center SORM CMC-3