Seen from on high
Russia's secret satellite snoopers
IF YOU use Google Earth to follow the A-212 road west out of Pskov, shortly before you reach what was until 1940 the Soviet border with independent Estonia, your eye may be caught by a curious black oval to the north of the road.
Look closely, and it turns out to be the shadow cast by a large satellite dish. At maximum resolution the image (pictured) is striking. The biggest dish is nearly 20m in diameter. A second one is about 10m, and five smaller ones are nearby. A shadow cast by a large wire antenna on two radio masts is also visible, as well as shiny new guard houses and an administration block, surrounded by a high concrete wall.
The installation has been built recently. (Your columnist visited the area in 2002 and nothing was visible then). What is it for? It is not recorded in any commercial directory under either the topographical name, Durkovo, or the nearest small town, Neyelovo. The military guardtower strongly suggests a close connection with Russian officialdom.
A top western security official notes that this is almost the only point in the Russian Federation (aside from the exclave of Kaliningrad) that is within the footprint of one of the most important Inmarsat satellites, Inmarsat 4-F2, which covers the region known as Atlantic Ocean Region-West. Ordinary users of satellite mobile phones and the like would find the signal this far east too faint. But with a whacking great dish, it would be possible to communicate—or to eavesdrop.
The pickings would certainly be rich. Inmarsat 4-F2 is one of the largest and most powerful communications satellites ever built. The size of a double-decker bus, it carries huge amounts of voice and data traffic, both private and government, some of it secret. It is particularly important for users of 3G mobile-broadband technology. If you are in Europe or the Americas and have a USB dongle on your laptop, there is a good chance that the data you send and receive goes via Inmarsat 4-F2.
Tracing the border of the satellite footprint round to the north does lead to one more intriguing point on the map: the island of Hogland (Gogland in Russian, Suursaari in Finnish) in the Gulf of Finland. That is even further west than Pskov.
The Soviet Union seized Hogland from Finland during the war, deporting the fisherfolk who lived there. Some construction has been taking place there of something but it is hard to make out anything from Google Earth, which has not photographed the island with sufficient resolution. One clue may be that in 2006, the FSB declared the island a border zone, making it off-limits to tourists except those with special permission. Why would that be?
The world of SIGINT (Signals intelligence) is notoriously tight-lipped. Those trying to prise even the simplest data from America’s electronic spying agency, the National Security Agency, joke that its initials really stand for “No Such Agency”. Even the phrase “satellite reconnaissance” was deemed too sensitive and the bafflingly euphemistic “national technical means” used instead.
Russia’s electronic eyes and ears are the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information, known by its Russian initials FAPSI. Formerly the 8th and 16th Chief Directorates of the KGB, it is now part of the FSB, Russia’s main security organ. The press service of the FSB did not respond to phone calls, emails and faxes seeking comment for this article.