Russia To Block Telegram After Failing To Gain Backdoor Access

A Russian court issued an order to block Telegram, an open source chat application with over 200 million monthly users, after the company behind the app failed to provide a backdoor or tools to decrypt users’ messages.

Telegram Encryption

Telegram was born as an open source alternative to WhatsApp that focused more on user privacy and security. However, unlike WhatsApp, Telegram never adopted end-to-end encryption by default, choosing to leave it optional.

Nonetheless, the channel encryption it provides (as so most chat applications) means that governments can’t spy on everyone’s messages at once. They’d either need to go to Telegram and ask for the users’ messages, which are stored on the company’s servers, or hack the users’ accounts themselves.

Those options don’t seem enough for the Russian government anymore, especially as Telegram has no offices or developers in Russia despite its founders, Nikolai and Pavel Durov, being originally from Russia. The company’s headquarters is in Dubai.

Court Blocks Telegram

The Russian media regulator asked a court to block Telegram because it refused to hand over the encryption keys. The media regulator said it needs access to the encryption keys to monitor terrorists.

Telegram’s lawyer, Pavel Chikov, said in a statement to BBC:

The FSB's requirements to provide access to private conversations of users are unconstitutional, baseless, which cannot be fulfilled technically and legally.

In a statement made yesterday about this issue, Amnesty International also called out the Russian government over its attack on freedom of expression:

In recent years the Russian authorities have steadily targeted the country’s few remaining spaces for freedom of expression. They have blocked news sites that criticize them, imposed draconian data storage rules and declared media outlets registered outside Russia as ‘foreign agents’.

Now they are targeting one of the most popular messaging apps in Russia simply for having the courage and integrity to respect the privacy of its users. The court deciding on this case tomorrow must similarly show respect for freedom of expression and not pander to the repressive demands of the government.

Best Alternative To Telegram In Russia

Telegram hasn’t yet said what its next steps will be to serve its many users in Russia. One way to continue to deliver the service is through domain fronting, a tactic that the Signal messenger has been using to escape censorship in certain countries.

We don’t know yet if Telegram plans to do this to avoid the blockade against its service, but in the meantime, Russian users could use Signal for private individual and group conversations. Many experts also consider Signal to be a more secure messenger because it uses state-of-the-art end-to-end encryption protocols by default and stores very little metadata about its users.

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