On 13 April, a Russian court ordered that the Telegram messaging service be banned within the Russian Federation, citing the company’s refusal to turn over security keys sent from within the network to the Federal Security service (FSB) to be able to electronically eavesdrop on messages.
Russian communication watchdog Roskomnadzor filed a lawsuit to limit users’ access to the app because the privacy of end-to-end user messages was a point that Telegram refused to cooperate with the FSB about.
At this time it is not known when the ban is expected to take effect.
It has been widely known that Telegram has a terrorist problem due to the emphasis it places on user privacy; the company has been blocking ISIS channels for years, but new ones continue to pop up. But it’s also because of how much Telegram values security and privacy that its founder, Pavel Durov, wouldn’t budge no matter hard the agency pushed. Because of Durov’s refusal, anyone wishing to use Telegram within the borders of the Russian Federation will have to use a VPN to create an IP presence “outside” the country.
The issue regarding the tension between the need for encryption and user security versus the need for government security agencies to have access to potential criminals and terror suspects is not a new one. It is also not a problem that is distinctly a sign of any sort of repression on the part of the Russian government or its structures.
The FSB’s request for decryption keys is no different than that of the American law enforcement agencies when dealing with the early GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks in the 1990’s. At that time, the GSM standard in Europe boasted the A5 128-bit encryption algorithm, which was held to be the most sophisticated security measure ever taken in communications.
However, even in the pre- 9/11 world there was a need for law enforcement to be able to judiciously conduct wiretaps and eavesdropping on criminal suspects and this was a source of conflict with the GSM providers at the time. Eventually, of course, a solution was agreed upon. There is no reason to believe that this will not be arrived at with Telegram and the Russian government.
Telegram was founded by Pavel Durov and his brother Nicholai in 2013. These two were also the founders of vKontakte, a Russian and Russian-area social network, roughly equivalent in scope to the American Facebook social network. Citing the need for security, though, the brothers have moved the company location several times. It is not actually known where Telegram is based today, but it is known to have had employees in St Petersburg, Russia and in Dubai, as well as Germany.
Roskomnadzor is the Russian Federation’s organization for the regulation of communications within the country. It is a branch of the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications. It attempts to regulate the flow of compromising information on the internet in Russia by blocking sites related to topics such as drug use and child pornography, and it has created blacklists of IP addresses that a person cannot access while in the Russian Internet (though a VPN usually gets around this matter.)
The blacklists have been criticized in the West as restricting freedom to criticize the Russian government, but there is no indication that the blacklisting actually works in this way. Observations in Russia by me show that access to site openly critical of the Russian government such as just about any Western media, are freely available, while other sites, such as Sweetwater.com a musical instruments retailer, and U-Haul and Wells Fargo – are intermittently available or blocked.
LinkedIn was also banned in Russia in 2016 for failing to comply with a law that requires companies holding Russian citizens’ data to store it on servers on Russian soil.
The criticism of this practice with regard to Telegram ignores the fact that many of the Kremlin officials themselves are to be affected by the Telegram ban, since they make use of it. However, Dmitry Peskov noted this and said that the agencies affected will simply move to a new messaging service.
Pavel Durov believes that eventually a way will be found to get around the blocking of access to Telegram, but in the meantime this ban will affect Russian users. Telegram has been gaining in popularity in Russia due to its easy interface and its security.