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Telegram CEO's Court Appeal Tests Russia Eavesdropping Laws, Technical Acumen


Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov, center, smiles as he leaves after a press conference following his meeting with Indonesian Communication and Information Minister Rudiantara in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 1, 2017.

Telegram founder Pavel Durov has announced plans to appeal a Moscow court's decision Monday to fine the encrypted messaging service some $14,000 (800 thousand rubles) for failing to provide law enforcement agencies with user information and access to private correspondences.

Providing security services with encryption keys to read users' messaging data violates Russia's constitution, he said in a post on Vkontakte, Russia's version of Facebook, which he co-founded in 2007.

"Everyone has the right to privacy of correspondence, telephone conversations, postal, telegraphic and other communications," Durov said, quoting constitutional excerpts.

Russian special services need decryption keys to "expand their influence at the expense of the constitutional right of citizens," he said, building on similar comments Durov made in September, when he announced that FSB officials had requested backdoor access to Telegram.

Russian security officials have said encryption codes are vital to protecting citizens against terror attacks such as those earlier this year in St. Petersburg, in which perpetrators, Kremlin officials says, communicated via Telegram.

According to Pavel Chikov, a prominent Russian human rights lawyer, the FSB state security organization (formerly KGB) is trying to gain technical access by announcing ultimatums and making threats. While fines levied aren't too burdensome for a company of Telegram's size, they do indicate an FSB willingness to block Telegram from continuing to operate in the country.

A user of Russia’s leading social network internet site VKontakte, poses holding an iPhone showing the account page of Pavel Durov, the former CEO and founder of VKontakte, in Red Square in Moscow, April 23, 2014.
A user of Russia’s leading social network internet site VKontakte, poses holding an iPhone showing the account page of Pavel Durov, the former CEO and founder of VKontakte, in Red Square in Moscow, April 23, 2014.

Third-party hackers

The situation, Chikov said, is similar to legal proceedings that resulted from FBI requests for encryption access to Apple iPhones — a request that ultimately was dropped, leaving federal investigators to rely on third-party hackers.

Secrecy, anonymity and "the ability to communicate in such a way that representatives of the state do not hear these conversations," should also be respected in Russia, Chikov told VOA Russian.

"Generally speaking, if we are talking on [a conventional] telephone, the conversation is protected by constitutional guarantees," Chikov said. However, Russian police and various state security agencies can obtain court-ordered warrants to tap the phone of specific individuals suspected of a plotting criminal activities — and they have the technical acumen required to do it.

Although privacy laws are generally the same for peer-to-peer text-messaging devices, Russian security agencies lack the technical sophistication to hack Telegram's encrypted conversations.

Durov 'most likely right'

Professor Ilya Shablinsky, a constitutional law expert with Moscow's National Research University, says Durov is "most likely right" that FSB demands represent a constitutional violation, as allowing FSB access to Telegram would allow for users' correspondence to be read.

"When that constitutional norm was drafted, correspondence was typically drafted on paper," he said.

"And the Russian Constitution's authors never envisaged a technological variant [such as Telegram]. In this case, we do not know exactly what kind of information the FSB requested, and what it means for Telegram to provide that information."

According to Shablinsky, although a Russian court can demand access to correspondences of a specific individual who is suspected of committing a crime, it is not known whether the provision covers access to the decryption devices for an entire network of users.

The free instant-messaging app, which lets people exchange messages, photos and videos in groups of up to 5,000 people, has attracted about 100 million users since its launch in 2013.

Founder and CEO of Telegram Pavel Durov delivers a keynote speech during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain Feb. 23, 2016.
Founder and CEO of Telegram Pavel Durov delivers a keynote speech during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain Feb. 23, 2016.

Telegram threatened

In June, Roskomnadzor, Russia's state communications watchdog, threatened to ban Telegram for failing to provide user registration documents, which were requested as part of a push to increase surveillance of internet activities.

Although Telegram later registered, it stopped short of agreeing to Roskomnadzor's data storage demands. Companies on the register must provide the FSB with information on user interactions; starting from 2018, they also must store all of the data of Russian users inside the country, according to controversial anti-terror legislation passed last year, which was decried by internet companies and the opposition.

Telegram has 10 days to appeal Monday's decision.

'No planned block'

Asked about a potential block of the service, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday said, "As far as I know ... there is no discussion of a block at this time."

But observers like Chikov say the risk is quite high.

"It is not necessarily going to happen right after the decision on the penalty comes into effect, as I believe that the authorities will still take a pause and try to negotiate with the company's management," he said. "However, with its refusal to provide access to correspondence, Telegram entered into direct conflict with the interests of the special services. Consequently, the political weight of people who decide to block is significantly higher than that of the same Roskomnadzor."

Telegram, one-tenth the size of Facebook-owned rival WhatsApp, has caught on in many corners of the globe, including for a while with Islamic State as an ultra-secure way to quickly upload and share videos, texts and voice messages.

Durov, who has been described as "the Russian Mark Zuckerberg," spent years fending off intrusions into his users' communications, forging an uncompromising stance on privacy after founding VKontakte, only to lose control of that social media company for refusing Russian government demands to block dissidents.

Since leaving Russia in 2014 to set up Telegram in self-exile, Durov and his core team of 15 developers have become perpetual migrants, living only a few months at a time in any one location, starting in Berlin, then London, Silicon Valley, Finland, Spain and elsewhere. The company is incorporated in multiple jurisdictions, including Britain.

This story originated in VOA's Russian Service. Some information for this report provided by AFP.

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