The meeting between Infowatch’s management and “representatives of government agencies and security agencies of Indonesia” included leaders from Bandung Institute of Technology, according a statement last month from Infowatch.
“The parties discussed the possibilities of using Russian solutions in the field of information security and the prospects for cooperation in the development of joint educational projects,” Infowatch wrote.
Calls to Bandung Institute of Technology weren’t returned.
Information security in Russia differs from the Western notion of cyber security in that the content and ideas, rather than the networks alone, are subject to defence and control.
Unlike Western democracies, countries like Russia and China reject the notion of the internet as a space for open communication and see instead certain information as a threat to the state or society. The understanding paves the way for both censorship online and the use of information as a weapon.
The differing views of the primacy of “cyber security” versus “information security” have been at the heart of an East-West stalemate on internet governance at international forums for years.
The Indonesian government is already suspicious of online communication, and has a poweful Information and Electronic Transactions law, which is meant to protect against defamation and uphold decency, but which has been used to jail people expressing critical views.
The parties discussed the possibilities of using Russian solutions in the field of information security.
Infowatch, a data leak protection company, offers defence against “internal threats” through traffic and personnel monitoring, protection against “external threats” online, and protection against “information attacks.”
Ashmanov is considered an important figure within Russia on the issue of information and technology both because of his professional background and his writings on the subject. He warns that the lack of “digital sovereignty” can lead to the “loss of sovereignty in general”.
“The struggle against the attempts of states to build information sovereignty will be conducted mainly by the US/West,” Ashmanov claimed in a 2013 presentation. The main tool and argument, he claimed, was “freedom of speech” which undermines local sovereignty.
Ashmanov’s company Ashmanov and Partners developed an anti-spam module for Kaspersky Lab that was then used to analyse social networks. A separate company, Kribrum, which provides this service, is jointly owned by Ashmanov and Natalya Kaspersky. Its offerings are marketed through Infowatch.
Ashmanov is also thought to have influenced the thinking behind Russia’s Doctrine of Information Security, published the same year that Russian-backed trolling and social media manipulation disrupted the US election in support of then-candidate Donald Trump.
The doctrine describes a policy of defending the Russian state and society “against internal and external information threats” and suggests a remedy would be to develop “a national system of the Russian internet segment management.”
In February, Russia flagged plans to temporary disconnect from the internet.
Comment from Infowatch and Ashmanov and Partners has been sought.
Infowatch’s Indonesia announcement comes after the company opened an office in Kuala Lumpur in 2017 to sell information security services in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. The company has investment funding from the Russian state for its expansion into the region which has been underway since 2012.
According to a 2015 presentation, Ashamov said he believes “digital sovereignty” is comparable to other notions of national sovereignty. At the time, he said only the United States has “full digital sovereignty”, while the rest of the world, including Russia, were catching up.
“South-east Asia and the Arab world lack human and technological resources to build their own digital sovereignty components themselves,” he said in the three-year-old presentation.
Ashamov has also discussed the use of vbrosy, or controversial ideas seeded into online debate to blunt it or distract the public.
While it’s unclear to what extent Ashmanov’s ideas drive Infowatch’s expansion into the region, there does appear to be a link between the ideas and commerce, says one expert.
“I believe that his own ideology of ‘sovereignty’ has great impact on the products he creates,” said Marta Barandiy, of Promote Ukraine, “by propagating this ideology he creates demand for his products.”
Barandiy, who is studying the influence of Russia’s information activities on foreign states, says the degree to which both Ashmanov and Kaspersky are the inspiration or the executives behind “the concept of information (internet) sovereignty of Russia” remains unclear.
However, Ashmanov would be “at or near the nexus of Russian strategic thinking on information war”, Barandiy says.
In addition to the high-profile battle over technological pre-eminence between China and US, Russian tech companies also present a challenge to Western democracies.
Kaspersky Lab, which Natalya helped develop with ex-husband Eugene and led until 2007, was blocked in 2017 from providing services to US government agencies amid fears it could aid Russian espionage.
A report by a Washington think tank examined the national security risks from Russian technology companies.
“While Kaspersky Lab has gotten public scrutiny, other Russian tech companies, including those that are direct outgrowths of Kaspersky, have received less attention,” according to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“These technology companies provide Russian authorities beachheads for other strategic initiatives,” the report stated.
Neither Infowatch nor Kribrum were named in the FDD report.
Chris is Digital Foreign Editor at Fairfax Media.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent, based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions.