Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Rise of Russian Tech

By: Hayley Harding
Produced & edited by: David Lee

Russia's Computer Age

A decade or two ago, the path to economic stability for students in Russia was to pursue a degree in economics or law.

Students focused on ‘serious’ careers, paths that would one day get them jobs that could weather the fluctuation in the ruble, Russia’s currency, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, the pursuit of stability comes in a new form: jobs in technology, in computers and coding, much like in the United States.

If there is a difference between the countries, computer science education in Russia was crafted in the image of rigorous Soviet traditions. For students, technological innovation is emphasized in the form of olympiads and non-formal extracurricular activities, said Liliia Zemnukhova, a sociologist and research fellow at the European University at St. Petersburg’s Center for Science and Technology Studies.

European University at St. Petersburg. Photo from Vassar College International Programs. 

“Both industrial demand ... and political agenda ... put computer science on the list of strategic trends in the context of the global technological development,” said Zemnukhova .

Students in Russia say they aren’t necessarily pressured by those around them to pursue a career in a certain field, but people encourage them to think about more responsible careers.

“(It is a) common opinion that being, for example, an engineer is better than to be a teacher or a linguist because of payment and opportunities to find a job,” said Lena Murashova, a student of linguistics at Novgorod State University.

However, a more technological friendly generation is not without its own problems.

For those looking to move to technological firms in Moscow or St. Petersburg after graduation, there may be a disconnect between what they learned in school and how firms are operating.

“The equipment (at colleges and universities) is dated, the good programs are only a few and the professors are mostly old,” said Alexander Klimchenko, a student of linguistics at Novgorod State University.

“Not being against here, but judging from my personal experience, it is really hard for them to keep up with the fast-moving technological progress, so their teaching is not always useful.”

For non-Russians, there are very different concerns with the increase of computer-savvy Russian graduates. In the past year alone, Russians have been accused of everything from shutting down the power grid in Kiev,  Ukraine – to interfering with the United States’ latest presidential election.

International Cyber-games 

A joint assessment released in January 2017 between the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency found with high confidence that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” although it did not go so far to name any specific individual, organization or state actor involved.

Putin continues to deny state involvement in the hackings. In June, however, he told reporters it perhaps could have been private, “patriotically minded” Russians who hacked the Democratic National Convention, perhaps contributing to Trump’s victory.

Russians don’t have much faith in their own election system, but they generally don’t think their fellow countrymen had anything to with the alleged hacking of the U.S. election.

“Is our election corrupted? For sure,” Klimchenko said. “They're not even really good in hiding it. But we can't really do anything about it. ... Has (the U.S) election been corrupted by Russia? I don't think so. In today's world, it's not only nearly impossible but also stupid to try to interfere in such an event in the world's leading country.”

Some consider the hype around potential hacking to be more indicative of the U.S. media environment than of actual Russian wrongdoing.

“There is no technical data that allows us to draw any kind of conclusions ... that (alleged hackings) were executed by someone that was connected to Russia or Russian governments,” said Maria Smekalova, coordinator of the Russian International Affairs Council’s Russia-U.S. Dialogue on Cybersecurity. “Still, this happened and affected the global agenda and became a tool that is widely used to, I'd say, even manipulate the global agenda and international affairs.”

Smekalova noted the accusations of hacking are beginning to affect Russian businesses, too. She cites Kaspersky Labs, a Moscow-based technology company with many alleged ties to Russian intelligence agencies.

After several reports from major sources came out in July  suggesting closer ties between Kaspersky and the Kremlin than once thought, the Trump administration removed the company from lists of approved vendors for information technology products. Homeland Security in turn outright banned Kaspersky products, followed by a Senate move to do the same.

As of 2016, Kaspersky had the largest market-share of cybersecurity software vendors in Europe. Photo from PcMag. 

As of 2016, Kaspersky had largest market-share of cybersecurity software vendors in Europe
Kaspersky has not released numbers indicating a financial hit since the United States government started acting against it, but major retailers such as Best Buy and Office Depot are pulling its products from their shelves.

“I can definitely say the impact ... has been totally and solely negative, both for political relations between the countries and for economic relations,” Smekalova said.

Private technology firms still report doing well, which offers hope to Russians looking for work in the industry. Aleksey Fedorov, a research fellow at the Russian Quantum Center (RQC), says the work RQC does in the area of quantum information — the idea that computer and information science intersect with quantum mechanics — has led to innovation in computer science across the country.

“RQC has become a role model for the transformation of science into new technology, and for the revival of the traditions of scientific and engineering excellence in Russia,” Fedorov said. “In particular, President Vladimir Putin mentioned quantum technologies as one of the most important innovative developments in Russia.”

An endorsement from Putin fails to mean any one thing for groups around the world, be it Russian students or government officials from the United States.

For some, however, it is indicative of what some experts are calling a rising “information war,” Smekalova said, one that may strain relations between the United States and Russia.

“I'd say the current situation is only getting worse,” Smekalova said. “This is not ... a sign of any positive change.”   

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