How Avalanche, the web surveillance system run by a former KGB and used by repressive regimes, operates

Andrei Masalovich, creator of Avalanche, the web surveillance system used by repressive regimes such as those in Russia and Nicaragua

Andrei Masalovich, 62, is a former Russian KGB agent. As he said, he became “famous” last February after being sanctioned by the United States. But Masalovich, or “cybergrandfather” as he is known, is a recognized figure in the “deep web”, especially for the tracking and surveillance product of him, avalanchewhich is used by repressive regimes to monitor environmental activists, journalists and NGOs.

The US Treasury Department claims that Avalanche helped Russia “attack democracy in the United States, Ukraine and around the world.”

But Masalovi, who also had a YouTube channel -Cyberded (Cybergrandfather in Russian)-, seems to have cared little about the accusations of the Joe Biden government. “I woke up that morning and found myself famous,” he told the magazine. Forbes. He also acknowledged that he was happy for the publicity that this measure gave him.

The American publication described him as an “archetype of modern surveillance mercenary in the service of repressive regimes and Russian energy companies run by sanctioned billionaires.”

Avalanche is considered the Russian version of Cambridge Analytica, the British company that used data analysis to develop campaigns for brands and politicians with the aim of changing audience behavior and that was involved in the Facebook scandal due to allegations of having illegally acquired information from 50 million users of the social network in the United States.

Avalanche is in charge of tracking public information from all over the web and uses bots to access private groups, collecting data from social networks like Facebook and TikTok, and specific community sites that the customer in question wants to target.

Avalanche is used by repressive regimes to monitor environmental activists, journalists and NGOs (EFE/Sascha Steinbach)
Avalanche is used by repressive regimes to monitor environmental activists, journalists and NGOs (EFE/Sascha Steinbach) (SASCHA STEINBACH SASCHA STEINBACH/)

A former employee of Lavina-Pulsethe company that owns Avalanche, revealed to Forbes that the company has another lesser-known activity: use bots to amplify and de-amplify content on social media. Two former employees said that without being told who the customers were, they were tasked with setting up servers to monitor fake accounts using a large number of fake phone numbers and emails, and programming the bots to go to a determined community.

But Masalovich’s web surveillance and manipulation activities were not only directed at the United States and Meta; the “cybergrandfather” also operated against environmental activists to respond to his clients in the energy field. Among them, stands out Russia’s nuclear giant Rosatom; and subsidiaries of oil giants Rosneft and Gazprom.

The former KGB agent did not deny these activities and recognized Forbes that environmentalists are a “real problem” for its oil and energy clients. In fact, in Russia several environmental organizations were designated foreign agents by the government of Vladimir Putin, and considered enemies of the state. TO Arshak Makichyanone of the most prominent activists, had his nationality withdrawn earlier this year.

“In Russia they followed us online and offline,” Makichyan told the American magazine.

Russian Avalanche users also include the FSB -successor to the KGB, and one of the country’s main intelligence agencies-, and the GRUthe Kremlin’s foreign intelligence agency.

Masalovich even recognized Forbes that its proceeds were used to monitor the web organization of the anti-Ukrainian invasion protests that were brutally suppressed in Russia early last year. Although he claimed that Avalanche was used by authorities for that activity, he declined to provide further details.

A former employee contended that political dissidents from Asia and Central America have also been targeted by Avalanche. In Vietnam, for example, the regime jailed several pro-democracy and environmental activists. Also on Masalovich’s website are photos showing regular visits to Myanmar, a country whose military junta brutally suppressed dissent and became a major trading partner of Russia.

Masalovich acknowledged that the Russian authorities used Avalanche to monitor the organization of the protests that broke out in early 2022 to repudiate the invasion of Ukraine (Alexander NEMENOV / AFP) (ALEXANDER NEMENOV /)

According to Meta, Nicaraguans were also victims of Avalanche. However, the former KGB agent did not confirm or deny whether the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega is also among his clients.

Despite these reports and the US sanctions, Masalovich also has his skeptics. Among them, Gavin Wilde, former director for Russia of the National Security Council of the United States. “They believe in this myth that companies like Cambridge Analytica relied on, where there is this idea that if you can gather enough data points about your target population, you can somehow algorithmically shape the mass information sphere,” opined.

In response to accusations that his software is not as powerful as he claims, Masalovich said with a heavy dose of sarcasm: “I really don’t understand why so many customers have been using Avalanche for over a dozen years.”

Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine prompted Masalovich to seek more business abroad. In particular, in nations opposed to the United States.

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