The debate has been raging in the US for some time now over whether companies should be required to provide a backdoor into encrypted service in order to allow law enforcement agencies to access encrypted content. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has also gone on record as saying such backdoors would be desirable.
But it seems that Russia is going to beat both the US and the UK to it. A new Bill currently being taken through the Russian Duma (the countries lower legislative chamber) proposes making precisely these kind of backdoors mandatory in all messaging apps in the country.
Russia in a backdoor rush
The Bill has already been given approval by the country’s Committee on Security and is being supported in the Duma by Senator Yelena Mizulina whose arguments in support of it are, to say the very least, on the flimsy side.
Her case seems to be built around the idea that teens are brainwashed in closed groups on the internet to murder police officers, and this activity is protected by encryption. Quite how widespread such murders are in Russia, a state where the police and security services already wield massive powers, is unclear.
But Mizulina would like to go even further. “Maybe we should revisit the idea of pre-filtering [messages],” she said. “We cannot look silently on this.”
The Bill appears to be targeting apps which already use encryption and whose use is currently fairly widespread in Russia, such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Viber.
But it will also impact on some of the global technology companies who are keen to make the most of the sizable market in Russia, yet who have been vocal in their opposition to such backdoors being mandated elsewhere in the world, such as Apple, Google, and Facebook.
Russia no stranger to oppression
The introduction of such a law in Russia, a state more synonymous with online censorship and oppression than freedom speech and personal privacy, will naturally put the desires of governments elsewhere in the world to introduce similar laws into some kind of perspective.
But it is also likely to demonstrate all too clearly how ineffective such a law will prove to be. The likelihood is that most international services would opt to withdraw from Russia altogether rather than risk compromising the security of their programmes.
And of course, users in Russia will either simply turn apps and other services from outside the country which do still use encrypted technologies, or avail themselves of a service such as a VPN, to encrypt all of their online activities, including messaging, and essentially render them anonymous online.
Whichever it is, it can come as no surprise that of all the countries to act first on trying to compromise encrypted messaging service, it is Russia who has taken the leap.