Telegram defies Moscow demand to hand over encryption keys

Russian secret service says social networking app is used by terrorists to plot attacks

Pavel Durov, CEO and co-founder of Telegram, has pledged to appeal the Moscow court ruling. Photograph: Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Pavel Durov, CEO and co-founder of Telegram, has pledged to appeal the Moscow court ruling. Photograph: Steve Jennings/Getty Images

 

A court in Moscow fined Telegram Messenger 800,000 rubles (€11,866) on Monday for refusing to hand over the encryption keys to the popular mobile social networking app to the Russian secret services.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, has piled pressure on Telegram to comply with sweeping new internet laws that allow the authorities to access users’ personal data.

Surveillance is essential, the FSB says, to intercept terrorists using encrypted chat forums to plot attacks. A suicide bomber who killed 15 people on the Saint Petersburg metro in April is understood to have used Telegram to communicate with accomplices.

However, Pavel Durov, Telegram’s Russian-born founder, has so far refused to co-operate with the FSB, saying the surrender of the encryption keys would compromise the app’s privacy policy and erode freedom of speech.

Moscow’s Meshchansky district court gave Telegram 15 days to pay the fine, invoking the new Russian encryption statute in a legal case for the first time.

Telegram did not send a representative to attend the court hearing.

Mr Durov, who went into exile in 2014 after losing control of VKontakte, a hugely popular Russian social networking site he founded, was readying for a fresh battle with the authorities as he pledged to appeal against the court ruling.

Legal rights

The FSB was trying to expand its influence over the internet at the expense of Russians’ legal rights , he wrote on his VK page.

“The Constitution of the Russian Federation guarantees the privacy of citizens’ correspondence, telephone conversations, postal, telegraph and other communications.”

Founded in 2014, Telegram became increasingly popular as a source of uncensored news and commentary as the Kremlin exerted ever tighter control over conventional media. Neutrality and privacy assurances helped the app build up a following of more than 10 million regular users in Russia – equivalent to one-tenth of its total subscriber base worldwide.

However, the introduction of tough new Russian internet laws is threatening the future of the messenger app.

Telegram put up a fight against legislation enacted last year that obliges foreign “information-disseminating” organisations to store the personal data of Russian users on servers inside the country, but caved in after regulators threatened to block its activities. But allowing the authorities free use of encryption codes may be a step too far for a messaging service that has staked its reputation on privacy guarantees.

Poking fun

Mr Durov has courted trouble in Russia by criticising and poking fun at the authorities. His Putin Shirtless Challenge – an invitation to men to post pictures of their naked torsos online after photographs of the bare-chested Russian president on a Siberian fishing holiday in August appeared in state media – is likely to have irritated the Kremlin.

Nonetheless, Monday’s court ruling against Telegram was being seen as a warning to the likes of Twitter and Facebook in Russia.

LinkedIn, the US-based business social networking site, left Russia this year after refusing to comply with local data storage laws. Others may yet head for the exit.