Telegram challenges encryption key demand from Russian Security Services

Russia’s encryption crackdown is about to face a legal challenge after a Russian court fined the encrypted messaging service Telegram 800,000 roubles (US$14,000) for refusing to hand over their encryption keys to the country’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

The ruling, which was handed down at Moscow’s Meshchansky District Court by Judge Yulia Danilchik was made earlier this week. But the founder and CEO of Telegram, Pavel Durov, has vowed to challenge the ruling.

Encryption banned despite constitutional rights

Recently enacted counter-terrorism legislation in Russia, commonly known as the Yarovaya laws, requires all internet companies operating in the country to make any encrypted communications services accessible to the country’s security services. It is this legislation which has led to a ban on VPN services in the country, which will officially come into force from the start of next month.

Durov states that he was informed on September 27th that Telegram was in breach of this legislation. He posted copies of his communication with the FSB on the VKontakte social media site he also runs [As PDF attachments and in Russian].

Posting [in Russian] elsewhere on the site, Durov pledged to fight the demand and to challenge the new laws through the courts, stating that they were in breach of the Russian constitution. “The FSB’s effort to get access to personal correspondence is an attempt to expand its influence at the expense of the constitutional rights of citizens.”

Durov’s desire to challenge the fine and demand for Telegram’s encryption keys in the courts appears to be motivated not by his own company’s interests, but rather those of the Russian people, whose freedom of expression and online privacy he is keen to protect.

The size of the fine is a drop in the ocean for a business like Telegram, but the principle of Russian’s being entitled to communicate with each other freely and in private is an important right. Of course, it is the basis of what Telegram was set up to offer, but they are by no means the only provider of encrypted communications currently still available in Russia.

Human rights lawyers take up the case

It has been announced today that the Telegram case will be made by a prominent Russian human rights firm. Agora, which is a law firm that also publishes an annual report on Internet freedom, has stepped in to take up the case. They have a strong track record having also defended the likes of Oleg Kashin, an independent journalist and Pussy Riot’s Yekaterina Samutsevich against State prosecutions.

Durov appears to be happy that he has got the right people to take up his case, writing on VKontakte [in Russian] that he is “confident that Pavel’s team can successfully represent Telegram in Russian courts, defending the right of Russians to the privacy of their personal correspondence,”

Meanwhile, the head of Agora, Pavel Chikov told the Interfax News Agency that this case was “a principle issue of the protection of privacy of correspondence in the digital age” rather than just one business challenging a fine.

The basis for their legal challenge appears on the face of it to be pretty strong because the Russian Constitution does state that every citizen has “the right to privacy of correspondence, telephone conversations, postal, telegraph, and other communications.”

But in modern Russia, things do not always pan out that way and it is a brave judge which rules against the regime of President Vladimir Putin.

It will, therefore, be fascinating to see how the case pans out, but proceedings are likely to take many months. For the time being, Telegram remains available in Russia, but the country has a strong track record of blocking sites which don’t comply with their demands, as LinkedIn can testify.

Meanwhile, encrypting online data could well become harder from November 1st when the ban on VPNs officially comes into force. Details on how this will be implemented are still vague, but services are still working at the time of writing and it is advisable for any Russians who want to be able to enjoy unrestricted access to the internet to sign up for a reputable VPN as quickly as possible.

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