Alexander Mikhailov: ‘Nobody will assume responsibility for ignoring a message about a bomb’
The Federal Security Service’s general mayor about “phone terrorism,” reactions of special services and possible solutions
Russian society is psychologically tired of periodical waves of messages about bombs received by educational institutions, shopping malls, courthouses and other social facilities. Schools are evacuated and rescuers are examining them due to threats are almost weekly in Kazan alone. Last week, several schools at once received messages on 23 May, earlier, they were received on 16 and 18 May. The Supreme Court of Tatarstan was recently evacuated too. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, Federal Security Service’s General Mayor in reserve Alexander Mikhailov explained the real threat of bombs, if law enforcement officers respond correctly, how many “informants” are found, if one can relax and what artificial intelligence has to do here.
The threat is psychological, losses are huge
Mr Mikhailov, do anonymous messages about a bomb carry a real threat?
It is rather a psychological than real threat because such a message must be checked out. And forces and resources are needed to verify this message — we bother people at work, we make parents feel nervous, schoolchildren feel stressed when they are taken out of this building, especially in winter when teachers don’t know if to take them out with their coats or not... If earlier this was considered as some hooliganism, today we understand that it carries certain psychological threat. Moreover, we cannot say for sure if something is real or not. Therefore almost everything is checked out.
Of course, a considerable part of such messages is online, from different providers, from some IP addresses. In recent time, after the operation began, the number of such messages suddenly reduced because communications were disrupted, logistic scheme to deliver this information were undermined. I think this can return again some time later. All this isn’t associated with specific people. Of course, we assume special services are behind it, so to speak.
I think there is a big number of “political” hooligans — hackers who deal with it. Moreover, we have to say that humans are very often not involved in such messages. What is called artificial intelligence today starts working against humankind. As a rule, AI starts generating the most negative processes. And it is quite hard to fight this. Even if we block some IP addresses, this comes from other IP addresses anyway, you cannot block everything.
We cannot say: “I don’t care, it is rubbish!” What if something explodes? What if there are severe consequences? This is why the reaction of law enforcement agencies is correct, adequate. Again, this distracts a lot of forces. And we carry huge losses. If we are talking about a business, it is a missed opportunity.
People start get relaxed, but everything is unpredictable
There is an opinion that in case of a real danger evacuations are not effective. For instance, in theory, explosive devices can be placed in the corridor from where people are evacuated from the building.
They can be placed wherever. From a perspective of minesweepers, bomb technicians, it is hard to guess if it is a regular charge or a handmade explosive device that was placed for some time. This topic is very concerning. Though at times people start to relax: “Come on, we have received so many calls of this!” But here everything is very unpredictable.
Nobody will assume responsibility for ignoring a message, nobody will, neither an official nor a law enforcement agency will. Say, somebody will ignore it and nothing will happen, but is there a guarantee some indignant parent won’t say: “What is this? Why didn’t they react? What if...?” This is the state of affairs now.
You have mentioned that evacuations are very tough psychologically. Can a building be checked out quietly without evacuation?
This is impossible because we understand that if it is a very dangerous zone, simply no work can be done. Where is the guarantee that a device isn’t placed in some vulnerable place?
There is a handful of anonymous people that have been found
How many plotters of this kind are found?
A handful. As a rule, it is either a school student who doesn’t want to sit an exam or a drunk person who doesn’t even understand what he is doing — he is calling from his phone that is easily identified. Perhaps, this is the hundredth part of the total number of messages.
If a child is not a minor, he can be held accountable. But mainly parents are punished, for hooliganism. Clearly, we can punish parents if they are real. We often have problem teenagers who have parents but in fact they don’t. A parent can be an alcoholic. He or she doesn’t have money for a bottle, while we will fine them. there are a lot of nuances that raise a lot of questions among people in reality.
“A person can sit next door, while information can come from Los Angeles or Copenhagen”
What impedes from finding the plotters? How are they searched?
Calls in general are made from abroad. If we lived in a civilised world, we would identify this anonym who, let’s say, is in Paris, called the police department and said: “Guys, scold this clown!” But this is a very difficult communication process. The search for plotters and the examination of the site happen at the same time, different people do it. Of course, they try to find the IP address, where this information came from... But the IP address is just numbers. While it is hard to identify a person. Especially, if information comes from a foreign website. A person can sit next door, while information can come from Los Angeles or Copenhagen.
You have mentioned had precisely AI generates destructive communications. Perhaps, it can be used to prevent such messages? Let’s say, to create a programme that could find out that a message was generated and doesn’t pose a real threat?
We can offer options but they must be backed by real capabilities. It is possible so that our IT specialists whose number is falling more and more in our country now can create this programme? This is a big question, and in general this has been discussed for a long time, and this has been lasting for some 10 years. And nothing effective has yet been invented. It is a problem of artificial intelligence — when it starts living on its own. If it has a programme that allows identifying emails or phones of those facilities where this takes place. For instance, all shopping malls are placed a bomb, all airports or railway stations are placed a bomb.
“For now we live like Robinson Crusoe on an uninhabited island”
How can there be progress in this issue?
There can be progress only if we start normal cooperation with foreign countries that is now destroyed every day, if we start to fight against this type of occurrences and facts together. Then we can focus the intelligence of not only Russian but also Western services to solve this problem. And take a note, everything is aimed mainly at the Russian Federation. I don’t really remember if we have ever heard such messages in France, in Germany. Yes, they probably exist, but not on such a scale. If we can have all the providers, all owners of dedicated services in one block all these things can be prevented with, then it can be solved.
For now we live like Robinson Crusoe on an uninhabited island. We have fewer friends. Friday is now our best friend. It is a human, it is a day of the week when people start to relax at the weekend.