Edward Snowden called into a Russian state television program on Thursday and asked President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinFederal agencies warn companies to be on guard against prolific ransomware strain Top US general: Meeting with Russian counterpart 'productive' Court finds Russia was behind 2006 poisoning of ex-spy in London MORE about whether Moscow has surveillance programs similar to those exposed by the former government contractor.
The exchange between Putin and Snowden appeared to be a piece of theater designed to embarrass the Obama administration amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine.
“I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance,” Snowden, a former government contractor facing espionage charges in the U.S., told Putin via video message.
“So I’d like to ask you: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than subjects, under surveillance?”
In response, Putin said that bulk collection programs “cannot exist” under Russian law.
“We don’t like a mass system of such interception,” Putin said, according to a translation from state-run broadcaster Russia Today.
He said that the government has “some efforts like that” to track “criminals and terrorists,” but that was highly regulated and did not amount to "mass scale" surveillance.
“I hope we won’t do that, and we don’t have as much money as they have in the States and don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States,” he added. “Our special services, thanks God, are strictly controlled by the society and by the law and regulated by the law.”
The declaration is likely to meet heated pushback from authorities in the U.S. and other governments.
Russia has reportedly expanded its surveillance of Internet and phone traffic in recent years, especially in the runup to this year’s Olympic games.
Russia is also the source of much of the malicious software that snatches information from unknowing websites and businesses, including last year’s breach at Target that resulted in the loss of information about as many as 110 million people.
The televised exchange between Putin and Snowden was all the more remarkable given Snowden's asylum in Russia, where he traveled after first fleeing the U.S. for Hong Kong.
Moscow has faced pressure from the U.S. to send Snowden back to Washington.
Snowden's question to Putin took place a day after President Obama accused the Russian president of being behind uprisings in eastern Ukraine by Russian separatists. In a television interview, Obama also said Russia didn't want a military confrontation with the U.S. because of the Pentagon's superiority.
Snowden's leaks about National Security Agency programs were turned into stories in The Washington Post and The Guardian that this week were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. But the espionage charges against Snowden could put him behind bars for decades if he returns to the United States.
Snowden fled to Russia last year shortly after releasing documents showing that the NSA conducts wide surveillance efforts to track people’s phone calls and online activity, among other operations.
He has been sharply criticized for choosing Russia, where the government routinely cracks down on journalists. Opponents have claimed that Snowden is working with foreign powers or, at the least, has given secret U.S. documents to Russian spies. Supporters have denied the charge.