Russian state employees banned from using iPhones for work over US espionage fears

Due to increasing concerns over wiretapping and spycraft against Russian officials, the trade ministry is banning the usage of iPhones for official purposes starting today.
Shubhangi Dua
Russian government banned official use of iPhones over US spying concerns
Russian government banned official use of iPhones over US spying concerns

Apple iphone @valiantsin-suprunovich via SuprV / Тимофей Овчинников via Pexels 

Russia’s trade ministry has announced a ban on iPhone usage for official work purposes. They said the American company’s devices will be banned from Monday onwards amidst spying fears.

The restrictions will eventually extend to finance and energy ministries and other official bodies too.

The Financial Times reported that Russia’s digital development ministry along with Rostec, the state-owned company which is under sanction by the West for supplying Russia’s war machine in Ukraine, have said they will follow suit, or have already introduced bans.

A person close to the government said, “Security officials in ministries — these are FSB (Federal Security Service) employees who hold civilian positions such as deputy ministers — announced that iPhones were no longer considered safe and that alternatives should be sought.” 

Apple products banned

The government is prohibiting the use of all Apple devices from iPhones to iPad tablets over growing concerns in the Kremlin and the Federal Security Service spy agency. They believe that there's an upsurge in US intelligence agencies spying against Russian state institutions.

The reason for the crackdown on Apple products is their rumoured vulnerability to wiretapping, prompting the need for domestically developed technology to strengthen security and safeguard sensitive information. 

Additionally, there has been a longstanding aspiration to minimize dependence on foreign technology in favor of domestic alternatives. 

Financial Times noted that a month after Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President embarked on a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year, he signed a decree demanding that organizations involved in “critical information infrastructure” — including healthcare, science, and the financial sector — switch to domestically developed software by 2025.

However, Russian analysts assert that this measure is unlikely to effectively address concerns or alleviate suspicions regarding the potential access to sensitive information by Western intelligence organizations.

Compliance issues

Andrey Soldatov, a Russia security and intelligence services expert said, “Officials truly believe that Americans can use their equipment for wiretapping, The FSB has long been concerned about the use of iPhones for professional contacts, but the presidential administration and other officials opposed [restrictions] simply because they liked iPhones.”

Vasily Osmakov, deputy head of the trade ministry said that other ministries will follow suit in targeting the ban of work relating to email correspondence. However, officials are allowed to operate Apple products privately. 

“The specialists of IT department report when someone opens their work email from an iPhone. It’s easy to control”, said an anonymous person close to one ministry.

Another person close to the Russian authority said, “Everyone complains that it’s inconvenient and they have to carry another phone or tablet.”

Some Russian individuals are doubtful whether the change will be a permanent switch. One such person is Alexey Lukatsky, a Russian cyber security veteran who’s apprehensive to the change as the Western tech company’s devices are being used to run the rudimentary Russian-made Aurora operating system. 

“There were restrictions on the use of work email on devices not certified [by security services] before. But most officials did not comply. The question is whether they will comply now” he said.

US Spying operations

The strict measures were implemented in response to a revelation made by the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, on June 1. The FSB proclaimed the uncovering of a "spying operation by US intelligence agencies using Apple devices" prompting drastic action.

Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said last month that everyone in the presidential administration was aware that the iPhone is a completely transparent device and its use for official purposes is unacceptable and prohibited.

FSB’s investigation revealed that thousands of iPhones with both Russian SIM cards and those registered with Moscow diplomatic missions in Nato countries –Israel, Syria, and China — were “infected” with monitoring software that indicated Apple’s “close cooperation” with the US National Security Agency, Financial Times said. 

The security service also declared that Apple lets US intelligence services access a wide range of control tools over individuals of interest to the White House. 

However, the tech firm denied these allegations and asserted in a statement that they have never worked with any governmental authority to build a backdoor into any Apple products, and it never will, Reuters reported.

In response to Apple’s statement, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council said, “When a big tech company . . . claims it does not co-operate with the intelligence community — either it lies shamelessly or it is about to [go bust].”

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