Things with Russia seems to be getting interesting as the country’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has demanded encrypted instant messaging app Telegram open up and decipher all user correspondence.
According to photos published by Pavel Durov, Telegram founder, the FSB is accusing the company of failing to comply with the Yaravaya law. The letter Durov received shows this isn’t the first time they’re getting pressed by the FSB, as a previous demand to comply with the law was sent back in mid-July. Then, the company was given five days to comply, which it obviously hasn’t done. Despite the fact that the demand was apparently made on July 14, Telegram says it only received the email on July 21, after the deadline had already passed.
Now, Telegram was found to be in violation of the Russian Administrative Code, carrying a fine that shouldn’t break the bank.
Regardless, the company isn’t planning on sharing any bit of data with the Russian government, or any other government for that matter. While Telegram admits to blocking banned content at the request of governments, betraying their privacy and security isn’t something that it’s going to do.
Not the first try
In the summer of 2016, Russia’s lawmakers passed “anti-terrorist” laws signed by State Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya and Senator Viktor Ozerov. The law introduced new requirements for the FSB to decipher communications, with “information-distribution organizers,” like Telegram, required to archive personal correspondence and make accessible to law enforcement whenever demanded. The law also requires companies operating in Russia to store data locally. Facebook is also facing a ban in the country over the same issue.
The issue with this is, of course, the fact that Telegram is an app that provides end-to-end encryption. This means that the message gets scrambled before leaving your phone and only gets decrypted once it reaches the destination. The company, much like WhatsApp nowadays, doesn’t have access to the decrypted messages sent by its users.
Telegram is one of the first messaging apps to provide end-to-end encryption to its users following Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the NSA’s mass surveillance operations and the realization that without encryption, everyone is exposed to government surveillance or hackers. The app is pretty much the first in a string of tools that set down the new rules of the post-Snowden world where providing privacy by default is a must and tools that don’t follow this recipe are not successful.
Telegram, a company that’s registered as both an English LLP and an American LLC, is actually backed by Pavel Durov, a Russian entrepreneur. Pavel, alongside his brother Nikolai Durov, are also the founders of Russian social network VK. They left the social network, however, after Mail.ru Group took over VK.
Handing over the encryption keys of Telegram, as the FSB requires, equals to shutting down the app completely as no one would ever use it again.
Russia isn’t the only country that seeks to gain access to encryption keys of messaging apps such as Telegram, but it’s one of the few that has taken such a direct step towards this. WhatsApp, for instance, has just recently been blocked in China, where smartphone users are directed towards locally-developed apps such as WeChat which pretty much offer all typed words to the government.