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Russian secrets for sale, no questions asked

At Moscow's Savyolovsky Market, anyone can buy discs filled with information hacked or leaked from government databases. Reporters or hit men, it really doesn't matter.

March 17, 2010|By Megan K. Stack
  • Anything from porn to secret databases is openly for sale at Savyolovsky market in downtown Moscow.
Anything from porn to secret databases is openly for sale at Savyolovsky… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Moscow — They are selling secrets along the shining corridors of the Savyolovsky Market: Unlisted numbers. Tax returns. Customs declarations. Wanted lists. Police reports. Car registrations. Business permits.

Wrenched from the bowels of government by the forces of runaway capitalism and corruption, the hush-hush databases have made their way to this market in central Moscow where the windows of tiny shops glitter with cellphones, pirated DVDs and porn.

Compressed on discs, frozen in Cyrillic letters, is a trove of petty squabbles and personal tragedies that make up the fabric of this vast and often lawless land.

In a country where you have no right to know, but really you can know anything, anybody can anonymously buy discs burned with private information such as rape victimization, financial holdings and the suspicion of CIA involvement. Asking price (it's negotiable): $40 to $60.

Nobody asks whether the buyer is looking for a competitive edge, an address to plan a hit, research for a newspaper article. The sale of these databases is illegal, sure, but nobody seems to care. A few beat cops browse lazily among the stalls, studying cellphones.

"Krysha," a vendor with matted dreadlocks and bloodshot eyes says slyly, stretching a flat hand over his head. "Roof" -- the word Russians use to denote protection.

The roof is the person who has enough connections, and enough muscle, to shelter underlings from the authorities. When Russians talk about operating in Moscow -- opening a business, or even working as a journalist -- they will, almost inevitably, say the same thing: What you need is a roof.

"It's cool, right?" the vendor prods, jabbing a cigarette at the wall displays advertising available databases. "It's cool."

A reporter settles on two discs: one purporting to contain all police reports in Russia throughout 2009, the other an amalgamation of cellphone numbers, addresses and professions. Both are packed with data technically off-limits to the public.

"They get leaked, or else somebody hacks into official databases," says another vendor, a swarthy young man who gives his name only as Alexander. "It's not legal."

The buyers might be concerned that a used car they're looking to buy was stolen, or maybe they're trying to track a license plate or find long-lost relatives or friends. Or, Alexander adds ominously, they are "people conducting their own investigations."

A browse through the database of phone directories turns up full names, addresses and telephone contacts for employees of the FSB, the secretive intelligence service that is a successor to the KGB.

Other bits of information come to light: A Russian colleague discovers that his name and his father's were found among the papers of a woman who was slain.

Anybody interested in calling on the 49-year-old longtime FSB agent whose job is described as "creation of favorable psychological climate in the collective . . . organization of video control and control of access" need only fish his address from the database. For the less formal, a telephone number and e-mail address are also provided.

If sympathies run in the other direction, you might phone the woman whose name was found in the notebook of a suspected CIA agent.

The police records offer a window on a compulsively secretive world. Crimes committed by police officers on a single September day included rape, hooliganism, embezzlement, bribe-taking and false testimony. "Suicide of an arrested person" also appeared in this category.

And on that same day in Novosibirsk, a traffic police captain hanged himself in his shed. "The motives are being established," the report says helpfully.

A few keystrokes dredge up the names, addresses and telephone numbers of crime victims. There's the 20-year-old woman who was dragged into a yard and raped from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on an August night by four unknown young men.

And, too, the director of a fruit company who was robbed of the $52,000 he was carrying in a briefcase.

A summary of street demonstrations carried out across Moscow on an April day included an account of 15 citizens who gathered on Arabat Street. They carried a dummy dressed in a blue tracksuit that was emblazoned with the name of the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov.

The purpose of the demonstration, the anonymous police loggers dutifully typed up, was "to establish support for Ramzan Kadyrov." Did they really believe the demonstration was a gesture of solidarity for the feared leader? Were they snickering as they typed?

With straight faces, they logged the slogans, which appear to have been dripping with sarcasm: "Kadyry, decide everything!" (an allusion to Stalin's famous "Cadres decide everything.") "Academician Kadyrov will resurrect Russian science!" "Putin today, Kadyrov tomorrow!"

"No violations of public order resulted," the report concluded dryly.

Meanwhile, across the city, a lone veteran picketed the Defense Ministry. And near a monument to the Orthodox St. Kiril, eight young men passed out a neo-Nazi newspaper and chanted, "Russia is a Russian land."

Here, too, the faceless recorders kept their sense of humor. The neo-Nazis, they noted, were trying to "attract public attention to the social, political and ecological situation in the Russian Federation."

megan.stack@latimes.com

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