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The brain behind Russia’s Eye of God How Evgeny Antipov created a platform that aided the investigative work of police and journalists alike, and what comes next

Source: Meduza
Evgeny Antipov’s personal archive

Until recently, the Telegram channel and chat room “Eye of God” was one of the Russian Internet’s main data-leak hubs, indexing services that allowed lawbreakers to gain access to private personal and corporate information sold by insiders abusing their privileges at work. In early July 2021, however, Eye of God suddenly disappeared from Telegram after a court order based on a complaint filed by Russia’s federal censor, RKN, which argued that the channel violates privacy rights. The authorities have blocked other platforms like this, but RKN’s campaign against the black market for personal data didn’t begin in earnest until after researchers at Bellingcat used leaked records from the Federal Security Service to tie the agency to the attempt on Alexey Navalny’s life. Russia’s intelligence agencies “fear the Novichok stuff like Woland and Voldemort combined,” says Evgeny Antipov, who created Eye of God. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova asked Antipov about the legality of his project, how Eye of God managed to track both FSB agents and journalists, how he collected several dozen state certificates, and whether he monitors his own clients for the police.

Evgeny Antipov has been raided, dragged through the mud in the media, and catapulted to online prominence in just the past year, so it’s perhaps not shocking that he’s somewhat combative in interviews. When asked about the Russian authorities’ objections to his work, Antipov is defiant and ready for battle. What about the reporters who used his platform to track corrupt officials? He’ll sell their search histories to the highest bidder. If cornered by the cops, he’d even turn over anything he knows about his comrades on the Dark Web. 

Antipov looks out for himself and you’d be a fool to expect anything different.

“I’m ready to leave [Telegram] and leak everything I’ve got on them — and I’ve got a lot,” he told Meduza. “All their messages and all their voice logs where they talk about how they hand over [user] information to everyone. And about corruption at Telegram and its ties to RKN [Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal censor]. I’m talking absolutely everything. It’ll be war and it’ll be brutal. So that everyone knows how little Telegram cares [about its users].”

On Friday morning, July 2, a day after a Russian court ordered its takedown, Eye of God suddenly disappeared from Telegram (where the channel had more than 1 million subscribers). “They even deleted it in such a way that the channel and its chatrooms continued to work only on my account, to keep me from noticing for as long as possible!” Antipov complained to Meduza. He says the way his project was censored proves that Telegram singled him out. “Some [duplicate] bots went down instantly (so quickly that they didn’t even have time to activate), while others managed to work for 10 or 15 minutes, as if the Telegram crew was on a bathroom break.”

As Telegram works to squash Antipov’s cloned bots, he’s busy teaching Eye of God’s large audience how to create its own bots to keep his service accessible. “We call them ‘bot franchises’ and there are already 575,000 of them. Before we were blocked, there were 370,000. Why should we have to keep our bot and run around hiding it if we can build a whole ecosystem that’s impossible to stop?”

When asked if he is threatening to blackmail Telegram (one of the most popular instant messaging platforms in Russia), Evgeny Antipov says his grand plan is to build a replacement: “Why should I topple Telegram without giving people an alternative? Instead, I could come out and declare, ‘I’ve created my own messenger, Eye of God. Everybody, come here because Telegram sucks.’”

Caught in the crossfire?

Antipov says multiple groups claiming to be from Russia’s intelligence community, federal agencies, and even the Putin administration approached him in the past year and asked to collaborate in exchange for a clean slate with the police. At one point, he says, his team got one of these offers from “people who could actually solve our problems because they’re the same ones who created them by reporting us to Visa and Mastercard, saying our activities are supposedly tied to terrorism.” These complaints eventually got Eye of God booted from every online payment system it used. Antipov declined to name those responsible, but he told Meduza, “It wasn’t people but a few companies that are well-known to many.”

According to a source familiar with Eye of God’s troubles, the Telegram channel BadBank led the information campaign against Antipov’s project, acting on instructions from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Antipov says the FSB wasn’t involved, however, and insists that BadBank’s beef was actually with VTB Bank, which served as Eye of God’s acquiring bank for online payments through Robokassa and other services.

Journalists have attributed control of BadBank to Pavel Vrublevsky, the owner and general manager of the processing company “ChronoPay” (he’s also been implicated in a range of criminal cases related to hacking). Vrublevsky told Meduza that he had nothing to do with any reports filed with Visa or MasterCard against Eye of God, and he denies any collaboration with the FSB (as well as any ties to BadBank, for that matter).

Pavel Vrublevsky

At the same time, Vrublevsky is well informed about BadBank’s conflict with VTB and Robokassa, and he takes pains to defend BadBank’s role in the dispute. The Telegram channel’s issue, says Vrublevsky, has to do with Robokassa making public statements that described Eye of God as a lawful operation. He says the journalists at Kommersant who reported the controversy probably invented the FSB’s involvement after talking to their sources in Russia’s intelligence community. Also, Antipov apparently misunderstood the “problem solvers” who approached Eye of God, Vrublevsky told Meduza. “One of BadBank’s fans — and there are a lot of them out there — analyzed Russia’s personal-data laws on his own time and found a certain set of recommendations for Eye of God about how to proceed correctly,” explains ChronoPay’s co-founder.

A rocky industry

Evgeny Antipov says the Russian authorities’ campaign against online services selling personal data is more for spectacle than anything. Before Eye of God went down, RKN blocked other Telegram bots like “Archangel,” “Smart_SearchBot,” and “Mailsearch Bot.” “Note that they went after everyone really loudly but they didn’t open a single criminal case,” he told Meduza. “They’ll leave everyone alone again after fulfilling their political marching orders. There’s no point in messing with the market indefinitely.”

Antipov confirms that his industry was rocked by Alexey Navalny’s revelations earlier this year that leaked records tie the FSB to the attempt on his life. The news prompted a large-scale probe into Russia’s market for personal data, but Antipov says no one ever questioned him directly about the infamous poisoning. “They fear the Novichok stuff like Woland and Voldemort combined,” he told Meduza,

As the platform’s name suggests, Eye of God grants users spectacular powers of observation. With just a snippet of information about someone, it’s possible to learn a great deal about that person. The service monitors its own users, as well, and Antipov had plans to monetize these data. “It’s one of Eye of God’s secret functions: I have a lot more data than people think,” he told Meduza, explaining how he built a neural net to try to identify different user groups, such as FSB agents, police officers, sex workers, politicians, and journalists. 

By tracking search requests, Eye of God makes it possible to see in real time who is under investigation by law enforcement or reporters. Antipov says the authorities never asked him for warnings about snooping by journalists, but he believes that “any serious business” in Russia would comply with such demands.

Antipov admits that his work with leaked data has evolved over the course of Eye of God’s existence, but he insists that he purged the platform of any illegal information before RKN blocked the channel. “I won’t lie: In early 2020, I realized that you can’t just download databases from the Internet, so I devised a little trick: I transferred everything to the first available domain, which I registered to a British company, and I started buying it from myself,” says Antipov. But that was just in the beginning, he says. By the end, every piece of information available on the platform was collected or parsed from open sources or special data-aggregation services. “I can now account for all the data,” says Antipov.

Eye of God’s creator dismisses claims that the service trafficks stolen information. The platform, he says, simply draws from multiple sources, including public databases, various social networks, and identification apps like GetContact (where users crowdsource their contact lists to match names to phone numbers). “We don’t buy any [leaked] password databases — we use,” Antipov told Meduza, arguing that major search engines are just as capable of matching telephone numbers to stolen personal information.

Competitors say Eye of God even sold private telephone records at one point, but Antipov dismisses these allegations as ludicrous. “Not only is that illegal, but telephone billing records cost like 40,000 rubles [$540],” he told Meduza. “If I started trading something like that, subscribers would be like: ‘Are you retarded?’ Who would buy something like that using a service that costs just 250 rubles [$3]?”

Going legit (or die trying)

Marketing materials for Eye of God
Courtesy of Evgeny Antipov

For a service that many argue is against the law, Eye of God has a remarkably professional-looking website. Antipov says he initially hoped to turn a profit by working with large corporate clients, and he claims to have discussed selling data to Lukoil, Yandex, and the news agency TASS. “My inbox was flooded with messages,” he told Meduza, sharing screenshots that show business proposals from Lukoil and TASS and emails with a former Yandex employee. “They all ask the same thing: Is there any documentation for getting connected? Do you have an API? You say you’ve got the big data, and we’re ready to get integrated,” Antipov recalled to Meduza, emphasizing that he never agreed to one of these deals.

Yandex stresses that it has never so much as considered a collaboration with Eye of God or any similar service. Buying personal data violates the company’s core principles, spokespeople told Meduza, explaining that the individual who contacted Antipov was merely an ex-employee. Neither Lukoil nor TASS responded to Meduza’s questions about their apparent correspondence with Eye of God’s creator.

Evgeny Antipov says he intended to legitimize his project but then RKN and Telegram’s administrators swooped in. Moving forward, he hopes to build a new service to monitor people’s “social ratings.” “We’d run the name of your employee and click ‘monitor,’ and we’d find out if he has any unpaid fines,” Antipov explained. “Or we’d run the name of your kid’s nanny and check all the social networks to see if she’s a member of any X-rated groups or something bad like that. And the system would keep monitoring that person continuously.” He compares the concept to Carfax: “You wouldn’t buy a new vehicle without checking its history for ownership, outstanding tickets, reported accidents, and past service. It’s absolutely the same thing.”

Despite being raided by the police multiple times and blocked by RKN, Evgeny Antipov is still a free man. The absence of any known criminal charges against him convinces some that he’s now working with the state, but Antipov has never denied that he will turn over whatever user data the authorities want. The very suggestion that such cooperation constitutes a betrayal clearly annoys him. “I’ve never understood people [who complain about this] and I always tell them: ‘If I have to say how one of you is breaking the law, killing people by searching for them in my bot, I’m going to do it. My aim is to make the product useful, not to conceal your crimes and get kicked in the teeth for you.’”

Two sources in Russia’s data-leak industry told Meduza that information about Antipov’s partners apparently reached the authorities after the police raided his home in April 2021, but he says he doesn’t actually know anything that could identify them. “All these people are behind VPNs and fake accounts precisely to avoid a situation where the cops can show up at Joe Schmo’s house and find your data,” explains Antipov.

A slide from Eye of God’s business presentation to Russia’s government sector
Courtesy of Evgeny Antipov

Before the courts turned against Eye of God, Antipov made several attempts to appease Russia’s federal regulator, for example, by requiring users to authenticate themselves using telephone numbers. Asked if this drove away customers, he told Meduza that most don’t care if their data end up in the authorities’ hands: “[Most of] my clients are people who are either checking calls from unknown numbers or looking for some cute girl’s contact info while they’re stuck in traffic. Are these people really supposed to be afraid?”

Antipov also took steps to make it harder to find Russian police officers and federal agents through Eye of God, removing the terms “FSB” and “MVD” from search results processed through NumBuster! and GetContact. The entire platform is now unavailable to foreign citizens, as well. “It’s not the worst thing in the world when a Russian tracks down another Russian, but they could get me for espionage and treason if a foreigner finds a Russian police officer in the bot,” he explained.

Different police agencies in Russia have issued several dozen “certificates of gratitude” to Evgeny Antipov and his projects, dating back to 2016 when the Federal Drug Control Service recognized him for his programming work. “It was nice to leave a paper trail,” he told Meduza. “Besides, these are documents you can produce in court to prove that you’re not an enemy of your own country.” Antipov says he’s managed to collect so many state certificates by connecting police officials to Eye of God at no charge, before requesting formal letters of thanks after a few months.

Antipov says he would welcome the chance to collaborate more closely with the police, but he’s failed, so far, to pitch them a product they’ll buy. The Eye of God creator told Meduza about an “awesome prototype” he designed that uses mobile devices to scan license plates and identify vehicles with unpaid tickets and missing insurance. Russia’s state bureaucracy has proved an insurmountable obstacle, however. “I’ve never managed to establish official cooperation,” admits Antipov. “It always ends with them sending me the paperwork for some bidding process. They say, ‘Maybe you want this one?’ but what’s written there is total gibberish! Either I’m a dummy or their entire legal department is out to lunch when they draft these things.”

Interview by Lilia Yapparova, edited by Valery Igumenov

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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