The Russian government has fined Telegram 800,000 Rubles, which is approximately 14,000 US Dollars. The Meshchansky District Court in Moscow had levied the fine after Telegram failed to comply with an official request from the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, better known as the FSB, to be given access to the decrypted content of encrypted Telegram chats. The FSB is the successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB. The FSB had sent their request for access to encrypted messages back in early July of this year. The FSB’s request was sent to Telegram’s offices in London, England. While the Durov brothers and some of the lead developers of Telegram were born in Russia, the organization which maintains Telegram was purposefully separated from the country. In the request that the FSB sent to Telegram in July, the Russian state security agency demanded that Telegram provide them with a backdoor to access the content of messages by September 14th of this year.
Telegram is a free, cross-platform instant messaging app that works on Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, and Windows. It was launched in 2013 by Russian brothers Pavel Durov and Nikolai Durov, who had previously founded Russian social media platform VK. While Telegram is not as private and secure as Signal and WhatsApp, its encrypted messages can still make it hard for governments to access. Even NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has criticized Telegram for using cloud based messaging, and the security threat that it poses. Telegram is only partially open source, the server software is not open source. Regular Telegram messages are client-server encrypted, however secret chats on Telegram are client-to-client encrypted. Regular Telegram messages are cloud based, and stored on Telegram’s servers until both users delete the messages. With secret Telegram chats, messages are encrypted using the proprietary MTProto protocol, and stored on the devices they are sent and received from. Secret messages can also be set to self destruct after a certain time has passed.
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The Russian government is not the only government which has attempted to get Telegram to install a backdoor into its software. The United States intelligence and law enforcement communities have also tried to obtain backdoor access to encrypted Telegram messages, but through bribery instead of through legal and financial threats. “During our team’s 1-week visit to the US last year we had two attempts to bribe our devs by US agencies and pressure on me from the FBI,” Pavel Durov stated in a tweet he posted this summer. Durov went on to make tweets which baselessly claimed that Telegram’s competitors Signal and WhatsApp were not secure. Those tweets were widely condemned and mocked by the tech community.
Pavel Durov has stated publicly that he believes the FSB’s request violates the Russian Constitution. Article 23, Subsection 2 of the Russian Constitution states that, “Everyone shall have the right to privacy of correspondence, of telephone conversations, postal, telegraph and other messages. Limitations of this right shall be allowed only by court decision.” Durov said that the FSB’s request for a backdoor was “not technically feasible.” “The desire of the FSB to gain access to personal correspondence is an attempt to expand its influence through the constitutional right of citizens,” Pavel Durov wrote on a post made on his VK profile. While the Durovs founded VK, and still use the social media platform, they no longer control it.
Pavel Durov went on to say that Telegram was assembling a legal team made up of top constitutional lawyers, and that they would be appealing the court’s fine. The law that the FSB made the request under was passed by the Russian legislature last year. This same law is being used to threaten social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Using this constitutionally questionable law, the Russian government is demanding that social media and messaging platforms store all of the data from Russian users on Russian soil. Twitter has told the Russian government that it plans to move all data from Russian users to servers located inside of Russia by the middle of next year. Facebook has not yet told the Russian government what it plans to do. Some believe that the Russian government is planning to make an example out of Telegram. Kremlin officials have told the press that they do not intend to block Telegram within Russia.