The Telegram app, termed by the Russian government as the messenger of choice for “international terrorist organisations in Russia”, was recently banned in the country after it failed to hand over encryption keys to the Russian government.
In a court hearing that lasted all of eighteen minutes, a Moscow court allowed the Russian government’s communications and technology authority to block the Telegram app, just a day after the hearing was scheduled. The hearing was boycotted by Telegram’s lawyers who complained about the hasty scheduling.
‘Telegram violated Yarovaya law’
According to the Russian government, all messaging services must allow government agencies to monitor encrypted communications in order to safeguard law and order. It empowered itself with a sweeping legislation in 2016, popularly known as the “Yarovaya law”, that required telecom providers to store voice calls, data, images and text messages for 6 months.
The 2016 law also required all messaging services, email and social networks to allow the FSB, the equivalent of the UK’s GCHQ, to access and read their encrypted communications.
The court’s verdict sends a message to all social media firms who encrypt private communications that failure to hand over such data to the government whenever requested would result in a swift ban. Amnesty International has termed the verdict as “the latest in a series of attacks on online freedom of expression in the country”.
“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,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia a day prior to the hearing.
Calls for encryption ban in the UK & the US
Even though the Yarovaya law doesn’t have an equivalent in either the UK or in the United States, governments in both countries have, several times in the past, called for encryption backdoors that would allow them to monitor encrypted private communications.
In January this year, former FBI Director Christopher Wray said that mobile phone companies must create encryption backdoors that only authorities will be able to exploit, thereby ensuring that such backdoors will stay out of reach of cyber criminals and enemy states. He added that encryption had weakened the FBI’s ability to deal with cases involving terrorism, child exploitation, organised crime and trafficking.
In the UK, Minister of State for Security Ben Wallace went so far as to say that the government would tax social media firms harder in the future if they continue to deny it access to encrypted communication.
The Russian government, in the last few years, displayed particular contempt towards Telegram, stating that the latter was the messenger of choice for “international terrorist organisations in Russia”. According to the FSB, the app was used by a group of terrorists last year to plan and carry out a bombing on a subway train in St Petersburg which killed fifteen people.
However, the Russian government isn’t alone in blaming the messaging service. In July last year, the Indonesian government blocked access to Telegram’s mobile application and the desktop version after it found that the app was overflowing with channels that contained radical and terrorist propaganda.
The Indonesian government said in a press release that the move was a no-brainer. Visitors to such channels on Telegram were taught ways to make bombs, ways to carry out attacks and were given sermons on religious hatred, all of which were not in sync with the law.
Research carried out in 2016 by Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM), MEMRI Cyber Jihad Lab (CJL) and MEMRI Jihad revealed how Telegram had become an ‘app of choice’ for jihadi organisations, individual supporters, and private channels.
“Content shared on Telegram channels goes beyond the mere reposting of jihadi groups’ propaganda, and includes tutorials on manufacturing weapons and launching cyberattacks, calls for targeted killing and lone-wolf attacks, and more. Some channels, such as those belonging to ISIS, show various levels of coordination among them, even using bots to aid their efforts,” said the report.
Even though Telegram did take action against terrorist groups in the past, such as shutting down 78 ISIS-run channels following the 2015 Paris attacks, it continues to earn the wrath of governments across the world who want complete overview over encrypted communications, and also because some of its features allow terrorists to communicate freely without fearing authorities.
For example, channels on Telegram only allow one-way transmission, which means that a broadcaster can share all the information he wants with subscribers but no subscriber can confront him or engage him in a discussion. This ensures that ISIS-run channels cannot be disrupted with counter-propaganda.
Furthermore, security features in Telegram like Secret Chat, message self-destruct, and client-server/server-client encryption ensures that users have the option of keeping their interactions private and away from prying eyes. The widespread use of bots also makes it more difficult for governments to track dissemination of terrorist-related content.
What truly kills Telegram’s efforts is that even though it removes public channels containing terrorist-related content, it does not block user accounts and this allows terrorists to open new channels as soon as existing ones are removed or blocked.
Unless Telegram starts blocking individual users who spread radical content, reveals names of subscribers in public channels, allows two-way communication in such channels and removes features likes messages self-destruct, it will not be able to truly deal with terrorist propaganda and may suffer backlash in many more countries in the near future.