Briefs

Yandex.Taxi: A Kremlin Trojan Horse in Lithuania?

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The debut of the Russian taxi company “Yandex.Taxi” in Lithuania at the end of July provoked a major public outcry about the security of the personal data of the firm’s clients. This data is sent to Yandex servers in Russia, where the EU personal data protection laws do not apply.

Yandex is a multinational corporation registered in the Netherlands that provides search and information services, e-commerce, transportation, navigation, and other mobile applications. The mainstream Lithuanian media outlets lrt.lt, delfi.lt, and 15min.lt reported that 51 percent of Yandex is owned by Russian Sberbank, with 57 percent of the bank’s shares controlled by the Russian government. Yandex has acknowledged that seven years ago it sent the personal data of clients who supported the Russian opposition to a Russian security agency. But in this instance, Yandex gave assurances that the data of its Lithuania customers, who are citizens of the European Union, is safe.

In February 2018, Yandex and Uber merged their taxi businesses in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The companies have a joint venture, where Yandex holds 59.3 percent of shares. Yandex came to the Baltic states in the spring and summer of 2018: to Riga, Latvia in March; to Tallin, Estonia in May; and to Vilnius, Lithuania in July. The Lithuanian National Cyber Security Center informed the public that the mobile application for Yandex online taxi booking maintains an active connection with eleven unique IP addresses (servers), ten of which are in Russia.

Moreover, the Yandex.Taxi app can connect with these servers without the client’s knowledge, since a device in standby mode still receives and transmits data. Even when a clients phone is not in use, according to experts, the device can activate a camera or microphone, record conversations, access the client’s contacts, manage calls, take messages, identify location, and conduct network access control. The Center advises soldiers, civil servants, journalists, law enforcement officers, as well as those who often travel to Russia and Belarus, against using the Yandex.Taxi mobile application.

Vytautas Bakas, chair of the Seimas National Security and Defense Committee, pointed out that Lithuania has sufficient tools – thanks to its strong law enforcement and intelligence agencies – to respond to cyber-security threats such as Yandex.Taxi. Yet in its 2018 assessment of national security threats, the Lithuanian National Security Department noted that “Russian intelligence and security services have legal powers and technical capabilities to access data from Russian and foreign citizens using Russian electronic communications platforms.”

Pro-Kremlin media in Lithuania and the other Baltic states heavily criticized Lithuania’s public reaction . The site rubaltic.ru mocked Lithuania for getting “scared of taxi cabs.” It ridiculed “local politicians [who] see threats to their national security in the [taxi] service” and called these concerns “paranoid fantasies,” claiming that “the most common and innocent things become objects of paranoia.” Sputniknews.lt in Lithuanian and Russian stated that “the scandal around ‘Yandex.Taksi’ boosts the myth of the ‘bad RF,’” or Russian Federation. The website ekspertai.eu used sarcasm to report that state institutions “extensively promote Yandex.Taxi” when they recommend that Lithuanian civil servants and officers avoid downloading the Yandex.Taxi app.

In covering the public reaction to Yandex.Taxi, pro-Kremlin media furthered the Kremlin’s narrative that Lithuanians are Russophobes and Russia is a victim of unfounded mistrust. Pro-Kremlin media could significantly contribute to building trust with Russia by giving constructive answers to the concerns voiced by the Lithuanian public about Yandex.Taxi and its clients’ data protection, employing – as these outlets often claim to do – high-quality investigative reporting. This approach would strengthen Lithuanians’ trust in Russian-owned businesses.

The criticism by pro-Kremlin media of the Lithuanian public’s reaction to Yandex.Taxi relies primarily on emotional rhetoric and the expression of various forms and degrees of indignation. This is classical demagogy, aimed at winning support by exciting the emotions of ordinary people rather than by presenting fact-based or morally grounded ideas and arguments.