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Messaging app Telegram must give encryption keys to Russia

Telegram's keys may soon be handed to the Russian government.

Published onMarch 20, 2018

The Telegram app logo on a smokey red background.
  • Telegram is a private and encrypted messaging service with over 9.5 million Russian users.
  • The Russian Supreme Court ordered the company to hand over its encryption keys should the government need to read any Telegram conversations.
  • The company now must either comply, break the law, or pull out of Russia entirely.

Recently re-elected Russian president Vladimir Putin wants to keep tabs on all electronic communications within the country. But messaging app Telegram, which prides itself on providing secure communication between smartphone users, has kept the conversations of its over 9.5 million Russian users completely private. However, the company just lost an appeal in the Russian Supreme Court which means it now must turn over encryption keys to the Russian government.

The Telegram app creates private, secure connections for people to engage in conversation electronically. However, last year the app was allegedly associated with a planned terrorist suicide bomb attack, and Telegram was forced to go on the defensive.

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The Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB) asked Telegram to share its encryption keys so that the organization could use them to read conversations of potential suspects. Telegram refused to comply and was forced to pay a fine.

Due to laws President Putin signed intended to counteract terrorism, the government has broad powers when it comes to invading the privacy of Russian residents. Telegram challenged an auxiliary order by the Federal Security Service, citing constitutional rights for privacy. But Supreme Court Judge Alla Nazarova rejected its appeal and gave the company 15 days to hand over the encryption keys.

Now, out of options, Telegram must choose to comply, face legal action, or pull out of Russia entirely.

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The argument the Federal Security Service made in court is that the encryption keys are not an invasion of privacy as one cannot use them individually to read the conversations. In order to do that, the organization would still need a court order. But, with the keys in hand, the time it takes to go from getting a court order to reading the conversations will be much faster and easier.

“The [Federal Security Service’s] argument that encryption keys can’t be considered private information defended by the Constitution is cunning,” Ramil Akhmetgaliev, Telegram’s lawyer, told reporters after the hearing. “It’s like saying, ‘I’ve got a password from your email, but I don’t control your email, I just have the possibility to control.’”

Telegram just raised $850 million from investors in February and plans to raise an additional $1.7 billion. The company intends to use the cash to build a blockchain network for cryptocurrency Gram. Telegram did not comment on how this setback in Russia will affect its plans for the future.

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