Warnings about Russian tech giant Yandex’s UK operation | Russia

The government has been urged to restrict UK operations of Russia’s biggest tech company amid concerns over its links to the Kremlin.

Yandex, the Russian equivalent of Google, is headquartered in Moscow but operates in more than 17 countries and recently launched Yango Deli in London, a service offering 15-minute delivery to households of food, alcohol and household items. toilet.

The parent company, which offers map, search, taxi and shopping services, has been under sanctions in Ukraine since 2017 following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Last Monday, the Lithuanian government called for taxi app Yandex to be removed from Google and Apple stores, saying it “threatens national security”, Reuters reported.

Uber also announced last week that it was looking to “accelerate” the sale of its stake in a joint venture with Yandex, which is headquartered in the Netherlands but has its main offices in Russia.

But the tech giant, founded by Arkady Volozh, one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen, has faced no sanctions or scrutiny in the UK – and Yango Deli , which launched in London in October, continues to operate as usual.

The grocery app, one of several super-fast delivery services to arrive in the capital in recent months, sells 2,500 items, including fresh fruit and vegetables, Hovis bread and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, as well as seasonal promotions, such as a 15-minute delivery of trees at Christmas and red roses for Valentine’s Day.

It has ambitions to grow: it currently advertises on the Apple Store and eventually wants to achieve “national coverage”, its British director, Evgeny Chernikov, said in December. On February 21, days before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Yango Deli announced on Instagram that it was expanding into three new areas of London.

MPs and analysts have expressed concern about the company’s presence and urged Downing Street to restrict Yandex’s operations in the UK. Its value has plunged since the invasion, but its market capitalization was estimated last year at $27bn (£20bn).

Several Russian companies, including Aeroflot, the national airline; Rostec, Russia’s largest defense company; and gas giant Gazprom have so far faced sanctions in the UK, but tech companies such as Yandex have received little attention.

Layla Moran, foreign affairs spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats, compared the company to China’s Huawei, which has been banned from Britain’s 5G network on national security grounds, and said its operation in the UK needs to be scrutinized. urgently.

“The government is currently saying that any company that supports Putin’s regime in any way is potentially on the sanctions list,” she told the press. Observer. “If so, this company potentially falls squarely in there.”

‘The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must look into this undertaking as part of its sanctions package,’ she added.

Yandex is considered to have close ties to the Kremlin despite being listed in the United States and officially registered in the Netherlands.

In 2019, he agreed to a corporate restructuring that granted veto power over key decisions – such as those covering personal data security and intellectual property – to a government-linked body whose purpose was to “defend the interests of the country, the Guardian reported.

The tech company has also been accused of stifling the flow of information about the war in Ukraine to people living in Russia. According to Russian law, results from the Yandex News search engine can only include publications officially listed in the national media watchdog registry, which limits news from the outside world.

Last week Lev Gershenzon, Yandex’s former chief information officer, accused the company of being a ‘key element in hiding information’ from the Russians about the war and urged people who worked there to resign .

Vladimir Putin with Yandex CEO Arkady Volozh in 2017.
Photography: Alexei Druzhinin/Tass/Getty Images

Security experts have also raised concerns about the company’s collection of large amounts of personal data, including customers’ names, geolocations, addresses, phone numbers and browsing histories, according to to the privacy policy that users accept when registering.

Yango Deli customers in the UK are advised that by using the service they are giving their “express and unambiguous consent” for the information to be transferred to Russia, where data protection is weaker.

Analysts said it was possible the data could be weaponized by Putin in the future, including for coordinated disinformation campaigns or to target people on British soil.

In 2020, it was reported that Yandex had withdrawn employees from its office in Minsk, Belarus – a key Russian ally – after Belarusian security services raided its premises amid ongoing unrest in the country. Sources told Russian media The Bell that the raid was an attempt to obtain data on passenger journeys made with Yandex Taxi, the Moscow time reported.

Sergey Sanovich, from the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University in the United States, said Yandex was “innovative” and full of “talented people” who were “resolutely anti-war”, but that like all companies in Russia, was ultimately at the mercy of Putin. “Yandex’s problem is that the Russian security service can demand access to any server located in Russia,” he said.

Keir Giles, senior Russia researcher at international think tank Chatham House, urged the government to assess the potential threat from Russian tech companies to the UK, saying: “People are unaware of the amount of data that they stream every time they use an app. .” The problem arises when it’s a hostile state that wants to cause harm to us and is interested in specific individuals they want to hunt down in that country,” he said.

“He has the potential to be weaponized against anyone. Do we want, at a time when Russia regards the UK as an enemy, to provide all our personal data to a server in Moscow? »

Yandex declined to comment on the calls for sanctions, but said Yango Deli UK remained “dedicated to providing high-quality, super-fast grocery delivery to Londoners”.

In a statement, the company said UK customer information was handled in accordance with applicable regulations and EU-approved standards and that “user data privacy” was the “top priority”, adding: “All data can only be retrieved from Yango Deli UK via a formal request to UK-based Yango Deli Limited and only by following established international practices and channels.

“We wish and pray for peace to be restored as soon as possible,” a spokesperson added.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: ‘We will not speculate on future designations.

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