Moscow has banned the use of messaging service Telegram after founder Pavel Durov refused to comply with its anti-terrorism laws. Telegram denied Russian security services access to encrypted messages. According to reports, Telegram has been used by terrorist organisations including the Islamic State.
Telegram is a cloud-based multi-media instant messaging service released in 2013. It offers services such as public broadcasting, “secret chats”, voice calls and video messages. In March 2018, Telegram claimed that it had 200 million monthly active users. Its founder, Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, has claimed that it is “hack proof.”
Durov has been in self-imposed exile since 2014. Some reports claim that Durov has at least superficial ties to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Assange has endorsed Telegram’s encryption, while Durov offered Snowden a job in 2013, according to Bloomberg.
End-to-end encryption ensures that chat histories are only accessible by those participating in the conversation. The data is inaccessible even by service providers or the messaging service. In addition to end-to-end encryption, Telegram uses custom systems of encryption and stores messages on its own servers. In a public post on Telegram’s “Telegraph”, Durov stated that Telegram has its own “cross-jurisdictional encrypted cloud storage” system, and does not rely on third-parties such as Google Drive or iCloud for back up. It also has the option of “secret” chats that are not backed up.
Data localization and the Yarovaya law
The Russian Data Localization Law (Federal Law No. 242-FZ) came into effect in September 2015. It imposes a data localisation requirement on “data operators”. This means that Russian citizens’ personal data can only be stored on servers within Russia. Data localization ensures that law enforcement does not have to apply for international permits to access data stored on foreign servers.
In 2016, Russia passed the “Yarovaya law”, which it claimed included anti-terrorism measures. The law orders telecommunication and internet service providers to store communication records, and allow intelligence agencies to access encrypted messaging services. The law was criticised by human rights advocates, who claimed that it would be used to suppress political dissidents and protesters. NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden spoke against it, stating that it was an attack on personal freedom and privacy.
A court in Moscow has banned Telegram for failing to allow Russian security forces to access encrypted messages. The request was brought forward by Russia’s communications and technology watchdog Roskomnadzor, and the hearing lasted only 18 minutes. Telegram founder Durov reportedly asked his lawyers not to attend the hearing as he did not want to “legitimize a blatant farce,” according to lawyer Pavel Chikov.
Last month, Telegram lost a lawsuit against the Federal Security Service (FSB), over access to encrypted messages. Durov has claimed that it is not possible to allow access, as messages are encrypted at a user-to-user level. Telegram has said that it stands for “freedom and privacy.” "Privacy is not for sale," Durov said on Friday. "Human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed."
The media has pointed out that Telegram is widely used amongst government agencies and high ranking officials. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that officials would switch to another service if Telegram was banned. The ban will allow Roskomnadzor to order internet service providers to block Russian users from accessing Telegram. However, the app may still be accessible through a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
Russia has previously banned apps and services such as LinkedIn, BlackBerry Messenger, Line, and Vchat for not complying with localisation laws. Roskomnadzor may carry out an audit of Facebook’s compliance with data legislation later this year. Other encrypted services such as WhatsApp and Signal are currently still legal in Russia.
Russia’s actions have been criticised as an attack on privacy and freedom of expression. “By attempting to block the Telegram messaging app, the Russian authorities are launching the latest in a series of attacks on online freedom of expression in the country,” said Denis Krivosheev, deputy Director of Amnesty International for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
According to the FSB, Telegram has been used by international terrorists in Russia. It was reportedly used by a suicide bomber who killed 15 people on a subway train in St. Petersburg last April. Telegram is highly popular in Iran, where it has over 40 million users. However, the Iranian government has charged Durov in absentia due to Telegram’s popularity amongst terrorists and traffickers. It is reportedly used by the Islamic State.
Other highly encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp have also been accused of popularity amongst terrorists and criminals. Russia is also not the only government to request a messaging service to allow access to encrypted data. The British government reportedly asked WhatsApp to create a backdoor to access encrypted messages in 2017, after it was reported that the app had been used for terrorist activity. The app refused to comply.
Our assessment is that the debate surrounding encryption and privacy is not limited to Russia. On one hand, concerns regarding data privacy are becoming increasingly relevant as data is weaponised. In authoritarian states such as Russia, there are real fears of suppression of free speech. On the other hand, apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram may serve as a platform for terrorist activity. We believe that this issue is imperative and must be addressed.
As Russia increases restrictions on telecommunication and internet activities, analysts have drawn parallels to China, where the internet and media is heavily censored, and western corporations such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo are banned. China has developed its own telecom and technology firms that comply with the Communist Party’s diktats. Could Russia be headed in a similar direction?