Classified Geography

Publish date: April 12, 2005

Written by: Rashid Alimov

ST. PETERSBURG - A map found on a computer at an Eastern Siberian geographical research centre has sparked an investigation by Russian authorities who say the detailed Soviet-era map contains classified information. The geologists under investigation, however, say the map contains no information that could be considered classified and reveals information that is already known internationally.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB—the KGB’s successor organisation—in the Buryatiya Republic, where the Centre for Geological Research at the Eastern Siberian State Technological University is located, commented only that the map was “classified” and no one from the university had the right to access it. But the investigation is part of a new map hunting trend among security agents begun some three years ago, especially in the region of Lake Baikal, where the Buryatiya Republic is located.

The map in question originated at Russia’s federal cartographic agency, Roskartografiya, and is considered classified by that agency’s accuracy specifications. The set limit in accuracy as to what is considered classified is any map with a scale of less than 1:100,000. The map found in electronic form at the geographical research center has a scale of 1:25,000. But these classifications are problematic as they have never been officially made public.

The map was used for determining the location of cemeteries scrap heaps, and points of dead livestock interment, the disturbance of which could result in outbreaks of various diseases, including anthrax. The practical accuracy of such topographic maps is 5-10 meters.

“That is precisely why such maps should not be classified,” said Sergei Shapkhayev, a prominent environmentalist and the director of one of the most active social organizations in the Lake Baikal region, the Buryat Regional Association for Baikal. Shapkaev has become the lightning rod in the case.

“Modern satellite photography is entirely capable of providing images of the location with the same level of detail,” he told Bellona Web in a telephone interview. “Therefore, these maps pose no interest to foreign governments. For our own citizens, precise maps are very necessary for purposes such as environmental impact evaluation.”

The map in question charts the already well known terrain of the coastline of Lake Baikal, which because of its UNESCO status as a World Heritage site, renders the map’s classified status meaningless. Because of this UNESCO status, the region does not contain any military sites or other sites relevant to state secrecy.

“The preliminary investigation is ongoing—we don’t believe that the map stamped as ‘classified’ actually contains any information that could be considered a state secret,” Shapkhayev said.

Case history
The map was found in electronic form on a computer at the Center for Geological Research at the Eastern Siberian State Technological University in early March by FSB investigators, who then opened a case based “on the fact of disclosure of state secrets,” as stipulated in Russia’s criminal code. The scanned image of the map showed the imprint of the Russian security services’ trademark “secret” stamp. Should the geographers be found guilty, they face some four years in prison.

It is a matter of speculation as to how the Centre for Geological Research came to possess the map, but Shapkhayev said they probably received it from Buryatgrazhdanproekt—Buratiya’s civil projects agency. Buryatgrazhdanproekt contracted the Centre for Geological Research to help in a Kabansky regional develop plan. Presumably, the centre needed the map to effectively cooperate in the project.

FSB officials have not commented on how they traced the allegedly secret map to the Centre for Geological Research or why they were looking for it in the first place.

Vague classification criteria causes property disputes and investment loss
Nikolay Kazantsev, the head of the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Research centere at the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, stressed in an interview with Bellona Web that precise cartographic fixation of geographical objects is necessary for economic development.

“We hardly need to ‘classify’ all geographical data, though it makes sense to ‘classify’ some of the objects,” said Kazantsev.

This lack of access to many maps has been the cause of many land disputed and prevents companies from investing in areas whose perameters can be only vaguely defined, said Kazantsev. In fact, it adds to the problem security agents are trying to prevent.

“That’s why today having a ‘classified’ map is a great priority for a company,” Kazantsev said. In essence, then, companies and contractors must vie for possession of such “classified” maps in order t simply do their jobs correctly.

In the case at hand, the company which had access to ”classified” maps was Buryatgrazhdanproekt. So in addition to Shapkayev, the Ulan-Ude FSB has called representatives of Buryatgrazhdanproekt for questioning. Shapkayev believes that there are no accusations to be made against them either, insofar as they were “simply performing their job in good conscience.”

The classification tangle
The Russian authorities’ wish to pursue this case has opened a legal Pandora’s box of legislation that undermines their case at almost every step.

According Article 7 of the “Law on State Secrets,” evidence relating to the condition of the environment, healthcare, sanitation, demography, education, culture, and agriculture—such as the map and other data found in the possession of the Centre for Geological Research—cannot be made secret by the government.

In Article 10, Point 3 of the federal law “On information, the generation of information and protection of information” it is stated that: “It is forbidden to limit access to information to documents containing environmental, sanitary-epidemiological and other information necessary for securing the safe operation of populated areas and production facilities, as well as ensuring the safety of citizens and the population as a whole.”

But Roskartografiya has held its cards close to its chest on those maps, data, and coordinates of various objects close it its chest, thus making the work of determining what is against the law and what is open material an uphill battle for ecologists, investors, and surveyors. As the criteria remain officially unpublished, the tension between the law and the public mounts.

According to Ivan Pavlov of St. Petersburg’s Institute of Information Freedom Development, legal acts prohibiting access to certain information do not, as per Article 15 of the Russian Constitution, have any legal force until they are published for the public.

While trying to further determine what information at Roskartografiya remains unknown to the public, and obtain commentary on the FSB investigation in to the Centre for Geological Research, Roskartografiya representatives told Bellona Web simply that “that is not for a telephone conversation.”

The ludicrous implications of secrecy
Unfortunately, efforts toward dialogue are hardly characteristic of Roskartografiya.At a recent seminar, for example, conducted within the agency that touched upon cartographic issues, no representative from the public were invited to participate—not even the public GIS-Association, which comprises geologists and cartographers from all Russia’s regions.

GIS-Association has been working extensively with the Ministry of Economic Development on evaluating the damage to the civil economy from active legal restrictions while fighting for the dismantling of the “planks of secrecy.” According to the current norms, a Russian citizen can’t learn his coordinates with a better accuracy than 30 metre.

“One of the reasons to preserve secrecy, which is usually mentioned, is the terrorism threat, ” said Kazantsev. “But by the same logic, it might be reasonable to limit the accuracy of tracking time in Russia to one hour.”

Legal battles in declassification of laws
In 2002, under a pressure from environmentalists, who filed a suit to the Supreme court over unpublished secret decrees employed Russia’s Ministry of Defense and that had the force of law, the ministry cancelled unpublished decree ð055. This decree was the underpinning of FSB investigations launched against Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin and Grigory Pasko, as well as USA and Canada Institute researcher Igor Sutyagin. The decree, because of its classified status, made it impossible for lawyers in the respective cases to mount defenses because they were not allowed to see the decree on which the accusations were based.

The Kafka-esque decree was abolished while Pasko was serving a 4-year sentence for alleged espionage. But in its place another 600 instances under which information can be classified sprang up in “The Law on State Secret,” thus leaving ecologists and others further at sea about what exactly constitutes classified information.

“Similar cases will occur while every governmental body has its own list pertaining to state secrets, ” said Nikitin, whose five year battle against espionage charges ended in full acquittal by the Russian Supreme Court in 2000.

”The problem is that there is no interested governmental department, which would be concerned with documents—at least the declassifying of documents over 30 years old—whose status should be checked. Nowdays, such work in Russia is not financed and is not carried out, though much data, in fact, ceased to be secret when the Soviet Union broke apart.”

Shapkhayev said that environmentalists and cartographers have long called upon Roskartografiya to declassify its topographic maps.

“The present situation profits only departments that earn money on the licensing of geoinformational technologies, digital mapping and declassifying topographic maps—Roskartografiia and the Ministry of Defense,” he said.

“I see no point in such widespread classification.”

An abolition on current prohibitions would mean, according to Cnews Analytics expert Sergei Shalmanov, that everyone would have access to highly detailed spatial information, and would be able to see on a map or a photo taken from the air of their own property, and even themselves, thus being able to plan ones route from point a to b—not unlike automobiles with GPS systems in wide use in Europe and North American automobiles. Cnews Analytics is working jointly with the Russian Academy’s GIS group and the Ministry of Economic Development to develop a preliminary Russia wide map.

Survey supports limited classification
A recent survey conducted on the special site of the GIS-Association demonstrated that, when asked what concept should underlie the definition of a “state secret” regarding geographic data,
46 percent of the responding visitors agreed that the coordinates of significant military objects be kept secret.

Only 25 percent of the respondents indicated that they prefer “territorial defense,” wherein all exact geopositional data is classified. Twenty nine percent stated that they prefer other means of protection of such information. A total of 550 people participated in the survey.

Social Outcry
Supporting this low volume of survey respondents who opined that all exact geographic details remain secret was the outcry of executive committee of the newly formed All-Russia Green Party. In is remonstrance of government policy, the party declared in a statement that
“yet another Chekist case is unraveling, deprived of any logic—investigating environmental specialists under the pretext of protecting the ‘secrecy’ of maps that have long been devoid of anything resembling state secrets. Instead of helping environmentalists who are working to secure the ecological well-being of the population, the FSB is obstructing their activities.”

Shapkayev indicated that he did not rule out that the interest toward the Centre for Geographical Research was linked to his activities with the Buryat Regional Association for Baikal as simple coincidence.

“What’s more, they have already begun parallel checks of our organizations, which, it is possible, may not be a coincidence,” he said. .

Similar problems have emerged for environmentalists in Siberia over the last several years. In March, 2002 by demand of the police and FSB, a court in Novosibirsk seized a Global Positioning System (GPS) device from Sergei Paschenko, director of an NGO the Scientists of Siberia for Global Responsibility.

The seizure was explained by confused references to a law, adopted in 1996, stipulating that geographical coordinates can only be defined with an accuracy of over 30 meters—otherwise, the coordinates are subject to state secrecy legislation. Official permission to use GPS devices, issued by the State Communications Regulator for Paschenko was ruled to be a mistake.

“It should be noticed, such a device is sold freely in any shop for hunters, but we had barely started to use it for environmental evaluations to fix coordinates” of potential hazards and the device was seized, said Paschenko in a 2002 interview.

In November 2002, a comparable criminal case was filed by the FSB in Irkutsk for divulgence of state secrets by the environmental organization Baikal Wave. The FSB confiscated detailed maps of radiation pollution on the territory surrounding the Angarsky Electrolyte Chemical Combine. One of the first to support the Baikal Wave was Russian cosmonaut Sergey Krichevsky, who said that all the coordinates to within one meter can be absolutely legally ascertained by orbiting the earth orbit. The criminal case against Baikal Wave was closed in December 2003 for lack of evidence.