Russian authorities are demanding a universal key. Telegram says it doesn’t exist. A Russian court has paved the way for the government to block the Telegram messaging app over its creators’ failure to provide authorities with access to users’ encrypted messages, it was widely reported on Friday.
Russia’s state communications watchdog sought the ban last Friday in a lawsuit that asked the court for the authority to block the app’s use in Russian territories. The watchdog said Russian authorities needed the ability to decrypt messages sent by potential terrorists and that Telegram had missed an April 4 deadline to turn over keys that would make that possible. At today’s hearing, which was scheduled only 24 hours earlier, the court granted the request after just 18 minutes of deliberation, The New York Times reported. Telegram lawyers skipped the hearing in protest.
The ruling came a month after telegram lost a lawsuit it filed against Russia’s secretive security agency, the FSB, which has said Telegram is the messenger of choice for “international terrorist organizations in Russia.” In 2016, the Kremlin supported a sweeping anti-terrorism law that required authorities to be given backdoor access to encrypted applications. Telegram, which says it has 200 million users, is widely used by lawyers, reporters, government officials, and others. The FSB says telegram was also used by a suicide bomber who last year killed 15 people on a subway in St. Petersburg.
Telegram officials have long said their app is developed in a way that makes it impossible to provide authorities with a universal key that decrypts end-user messages. In an online statement Friday, Telegram founder Pavel Durov continued to resist Russia’s demands, saying the government lacked the means to punish his company for its noncompliance.
“At Telegram, we have the luxury of not caring about revenue streams or ad sales,” Durov, a Russian who fled the country in 2014, wrote. “Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.”
Friday’s ruling clears the way for Russian communications regulators to order the country’s ISPs to block the Telegram protocol or Telegram servers on their networks. While it might be possible for individuals to use virtual private networks for the Tor anonymity service to bypass such a move, the blocks would likely cause a major disruption for most Telegram users in that country. Telegram has announced its intention to launch a peer-to-peer technology, but it remains unclear if it would be enough to bypass a Russian ban.
The NYT said the ban will put the Kremlin in a slightly awkward position, because many inside the government, including those in President Vladimir Putin’s press office, use Telegram. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has announced that it’s moving to the Viber messaging app, the NYT reported, citing the Interfax news agency.