Are there going to be fewer secrets in Russia?

Publish date: June 29, 2005

Written by: Rashid Alimov

ST. PETERSBURG—A new and more up-to-date classification system on cartographic information could be in the offing after several environmental groups and businesses have found themselves afoul of Russia’s secrecy laws for possessing maps that older legislation considers classified.

The debate over what scale of mapping constitutes state secrecy has been heated in recent years as the Federal Security Service (FSB)—the KGB’s successor—has brought espionage charges against several environmental NGOs and businesses for possessing what is considered to be detailed information about the location of sites the security services consider national security hazards.

The push to overhaul outdated legislation, which has not changed in tune with publicly available technology was discussed at the INFOFORUM-2005 conference convened by the Russian GIS Association of Russian Cartographers, and organisation that studies geospatial technologies and defends its members rights to collect topographical information.

The GIS Association is continuing to encourage public and government discussion of the problem of classification and secrecy. As a part of INFOFORUM-2005, GIS hosted on June 16th a roundtable devoted to the issue of information security and rational classification in the realm of positional data. Representatives of social organizations, governmental departments, and geoinformational studies specialists were invited to participate.

Prior to the conference, the chairwoman of the Advisory Council to the President of the Russian Federation “On cooperation in the development of the institutions of civil society,” Ella Pamfilova, proposed creation of a working group to examine the question of declassifying topographic maps scaled at 1:25,000.

Current Russian secrecy laws confine maps to a scale of 1:100,000, with a cleansing of all secret installations, for them to be considered public information.

The problem drew public attention yet again after in March 2004 the Federal Security Service (FSB)—the KGB’s successor organisation— launched a criminal case after it discovered a 1:25,000 scale map—which is more detailed than current state secrecy laws allow— at a university in Buryatia. This represents only one of several similar FSB-initiated cartography cases on “revealing of state secrets,” makes public and activists concerned of what is called —particularly by the recently founded “Public Committee in Defense of Scientists” that was recently founded in Moscow in response to these concerns — an “all-embracing spy-mania”.

Pamfilova’s letter
Pamfilova sent invitations to participate in the working group to several organizations and departments – the GIS Association, the Ministry of Defense, the State Cartography Agency (Roskartografiya), the Economic Ministry, the Interdepartmental Commission on the Protection of State Secrets, as well as the Presidential Administration.

Bellona-web learned of the plans for the working group at the conference “Human rights, the environment, and civil society,” which took place from June 3-4 near Moscow. Participants at the conference passed a resolution supporting Pamfilova’s initiative to investigate the stringent cartographic secrecy in Russia.

Environmentalists and cartographers have been calling for the declassification of detailed topographic maps for several years. An open letter to Vladimir Putin drafted by the leaders of social, scientific, and non-governmental organizations in 2000 stated that: “In our view, decisive reform is necessary in this field. It is high time to reject the baseless policy of secrecy and bring the contents of directive documents to light, as is done in all developed countries of the world.”

The necessity for the use of topographic maps of a scale of 1:25,000 arose in connection with construction employing geographical informational technology on unclassified municipal building plans, Pamfilova continued in her letter.

“These plans indicated the locations of cemeteries, scrap heaps, and points of dead livestock internment that presented a potential danger to the surrounding environment and to residents’ health.”

A law against technological progress
GIS President Sergei Miller said the question of cartographic declassification embraced an even larger context.

“In addition to the arguments in Pamfilova’s letter, there are many other factors—more specifically, classification is a serious obstacle to the development of geoinformational technology.”

Governmental restrictions that have not been reconsidered for several years have come to contradict and have fallen behind the current level of developments in modern geographical information charting techniques. Modern satellite photography can distinguish a vehicles’ license plate numbers from several hundred kilometres above the earth, and navigational systems can determine exact coordinates to within an accuracy of 5 meters. However, the secrecy threshold for classification according to current Russian law is 30 meters.

In an interview with Bellona Web, Miller stated that he considers appropriate the inclusion of revisions in the law on state secrets that would establish a principle that information does not merit classification “if it is already known or readily available to a third party.” This would include the above technologies and many others.

Currently, the precise coordinates of an object can be determined without a secret map—all you need is a GPS device, which orients using positional data from satellites.

“That is precisely why such maps cannot be classified. Modern satellite photography easily allows the representation of geographic areas at an equivalent level of detail. These maps present no interest to foreign governments,” said environmentalist Sergei Shapkhaev who is named in the FSB investigation that ensued in March after the discovery of the 1:25,000 scale map.

“But for our own population, for environmental and ecological work on-site, exact maps are absolutely necessary,” Shapkhaev, who is also a professor at Buryat University.

Shapkhaev’s research centre at the university had used a 1:25,000 map in working out a development plan for the Kabansky region of Buryatia.

Shapkhaev told Bellona Web that most of his confiscated computer data has been returned by FSB agents, but the investigation continues.

“The computers are still at the FSB. University studies suffer because of this,” said Shapkhaev.

“Now we’re launching a complaint with the prosecutors’ office to get our computers back. At the end of the day, FSB doesn’t need them anymore—everything they needed may well have been copied already.”

No personal charges in the criminal case have yet been filed. The existing article of the Criminal Code, 283.1, provides for imprisonment in a labor camp for up to four years.

"Object Defense"
In 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton annulled a system of selective access that limited the accuracy of civil GPS systems to 100 meters. That meant that the several million owners of GPS devices in the world, at no additional expense, were suddenly allowed to determine their precise location within a few dozen centimeters. However, the US Administration still reserved the right to selectively block access to GPS signals in regions of armed conflict.

Russian cartographers hold the opinion that the underlying principle in determining state secrets in the sphere of positional data should not be that of a blanket “area defense,” whereby all exact geopositional data are classified, but should be based on “object defense,” where only geographic data related to concrete strategic objects are classified.

“It makes sense to classify only select objects,” argued Nikolai Kazantsev, director for the Center of Geoinformational Research at the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences said. He said in an interview with Bellona Web that the absence of free access to cartographic data creates numerous zoning conflicts and serves as an obstacle to investors. Therefore, those companies with access to “secret” information today have a great advantage This hinders free market development to the advantage of companies with the right government connections.

Has the terrain started to shift?
“What is the sense in declassifying only the 1:25,000 scale? Let’s not stop at that, we need to demand the declassification of 1:10,000 as well,” maintained former astronaut and environmentalist Sergei Krichevsky at the “Human rights, the environment and civil society” conference.


Krichevsky has been a long-time supporter of doing away such cartographic secret. In November 2002 a criminal case similar to the Buryatia case was filed by the FSB in against the environmental organization Baikal Wave for disclosure of state secrets because the organisaton possessed a 1:50,000 scale map charting radiation pollution on the territory surrounding the Angarsky Electrolyte Chemical Combine. Krichevsky publicly supported the NGO’s claim that "coordinates to within one meter can be absolutely legally ascertained by satellites from the earth orbit".

Shapkhaev, who also participated in the conference, was less optimistic-"the situation is more complicated than I thought. There are many people who have an interest in the preservation of the current situation."

Shapkhaev continued that "there is no point in the classification of such maps, but to serve as a source of bribe income for the representatives of the ‘first department’ Russian shorthand for the FSB."

The general opinion of members of the GIS society is that "Roskartografiya, the chief department in the field of land surveying and cartography in Russia, bears the greatest responsibility for the failure to take any significant steps in this area. The underlying reason for this is the muddle within Roskartografiya’s mandate of the functions of governmental customer, regulator, and implementer of cartographic and survey-related work," said the GIS Association Vice-President Yevgeny Kapralov.

Furthermore, the dismantling of the planks of secrecy will require definitive additional costs connected with information control, which is another of the reasons government agencies have been delaying action.

What is secret and what is not?
According to a Roskartografiya list issued in 1997, only maps detailed at a scale of less than 1:100,000 if all the secret objects and sites have been removed from them were considered public. Maps scaled at 1:25,000 are considered secret.

Lists of other governing bodies and departments define the rules in a similar fashion, but not in precisely the same way-which is the reason why Russian environmentalists assert that "the notion of state secret in Russia has been replaced with a departmental secret."

"When the Law on the state secret was adopted, the idea was that it should describe the categories of secret data. And the departmental lists should classify the concrete data and facts. But in reality, it turned out, that ministries and departments compose their own lists of secrets, which comprise broader categories than in the Law," said lawyer Ivan Pavlov who defended Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin and Grigory Pasko, two Russian environmentalists who were accused by FSB in divulging of state secrets. Nikitin was fully acquitted by the Russian Supreme Court in 2000. Pasko served four years in prison, but is waiting for his case to be examined, and his name cleared of wrongdoing, by the European Human Rights Court.

Roskartografia’s list is classified having "restricted access," which is the lowest level of Russian state secrecy classifications. As result, an updated version of this list, enacted in 2003, has yet to been published. It is only known that it differs little from the 1997 list.

"They the investigation proposed to show me the Roskartografiya list, but for that they ask that we should have a specially equipped room to keep it there," said Shapkhaev.

"In principle, while I’m not familiar with this list, they ought not incriminate me with anything."

According to the Russian Constitution, "any legal acts pertaining to rights, freedoms and responsibilities of a person and a citizen, should not be applied, unless officially published for general knowledge." But Russia’s court practice differs significantly from the constitution, as courts usually understand the classified lists as just "technical documents." Though by using these "departmental" lists, a person may be accused of "divulging of state secrets," not "departmental" ones.

Until recently there was a "restricted access" list issued by the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) that offered another definition about what secret data about various facilities is, and compiled a list of secret data and cartographic scales.

In some items the lists duplicate each other -e.g. concerning secret scale of gravimetric maps, which is 1:1,000,000, and precision of the space shooting, not less than 2 meters.

But sometimes the lists differ.

According to the Roskartografiya list, "topographic maps scaled 1:100,000, photo plans and maps, plans of cities and other settlements, detailed from 1:50,000 to 1:100,000 " are considered secret.

MNR defined as secret only those "topographic, digital and electronic maps, photo plans and maps, plans of cities scaled 1:50,000 and larger in the 1942 coordinate system in the territory of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States."

The upshot is that, according to the MNR, 1:100,000 maps were considered "open," while Roskartografiya classified them.

The paragraphs of the MNR list pertaining to the maps were copied from " Order of the Ministry of Defense no.055" issued August 10th 1996, which concerned the list of data to be classified in the military. This order was declared void by Russian courts in February 2002 as a result of a complaint filed by Pavlov in Pasko’s defense.

"Actually, from that very moment, the corresponding paragraphs of the MNR list ceased to have any effect", said Pavlov. "But according to my data, in the end of 2004 or in the beginning of 2005, MNR enacted a new list, which unlike the previous, is not simply on "restricted access." but "secret".

It was the Defense Ministry order No.055 that was used to charge Nikitin and Pasko. Order no.055 had not been published or registered with the Ministry of Justice. Pavlov challenged the military list because, instead of defining concrete data to classify, it had new categories of data to classify, which weren’t mentioned in the Law On the State Secret itself.

"If you issue a legal document concerning human freedoms and rights, please, remove all the secret data from it, and publish it. If you want this document to be secret, remove from it everything about freedoms and rights," – Nikitin’s chief counsel Yuri Schmidt advised the Russian authorities, commenting on a similar complaint filed by him in 2001 against order No.055.

With the latest Pamfilova’s initiative, it’s possible that the departmental lists will follow the abolished order no.055 and the answer to the question "what’s secret in Russia, and what’s not." will become clearer.