An American missionary working in the Russian Republic received unmistakable confirmation recently that his e-mail communications have been monitored by the Russian government for some time. A local e-mail company, through which this missionary connects to the Internet, passed copies of many of his messages to a government official. The official in question made it clear that this missionary could expect visa difficulties in the future--which has proven to be the case. Another Western parachurch ministry fears Russian mafia may be screening missionary Internet communications.
E-mail services in Russia, including Western companies such as MCIMail and Compuserve, usually are accessed by dialing into a local e-mail company: no 800 numbers exist there for direct connections to MCIMail or Compuserve. As a result, e-mail can easily be monitored, as can fax communications. Furthermore, since April 1995, a Yeltsin presidential decree has prohibited e-mail encryption, thus, if enforced, removing the possibility of coded messages free from Russian officials' prying eyes. (See Sophia Coudenhove, "State Control Over Electronic Data Feared," Moscow Times, 4 June 1995, 15.)
Veteran Western missionaries in Russia respond, on the one hand, noting that the tremendous volume of e-mail and fax communications to and from major cities makes comprehensive government monitoring impractical. On the other hand, they note that a given church or parachurch ministry of special interest to the authorities, even in Moscow or St. Petersburg, is liable to systematic invasion of privacy.
It would seem prudent for persons using e-mail in Russia, or between Russia and other countries, to limit the content of their messages to routine, day-to-day business. It would appear to be unwise to communicate sensitive information, including strategies, personnel issues, and finances, via Russian e-mail. Since mail and fax also lack assured privacy, Western courier services or hand delivery of especially sensitive communications would seem advisable.
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© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies