Russia seeks ban on Telegram, popular messaging app, amid dispute over access to encrypted chats

The Russian government’s media watchdog has filed a lawsuit against the popular Telegram messaging application aimed at banning it within its borders over dispute a involving Moscow’s inability to eav

The Russian government’s media watchdog has filed a lawsuit against the popular Telegram messaging application aimed at banning it within its borders over a dispute involving Moscow’s inability to eavesdrop.

Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state media regulator, said in a statement Friday that it sued the app’s parent company in a Moscow court seeking “restrictions on access to … Telegram on the territory of Russia,” citing its failure to comply with federal authorities’ demand for data.

Russia tightly restricts internet access inside the country, and legislation adopted in 2016 requires communication providers to give the government access to customers’ conversations. Telegram lets users communicate using end-to-end encryption technology, however, rendering their messages unreadable to anyone other than the authorized sender or recipient, and spurring the ongoing feud with federal authorities at the heart of Friday’s lawsuit.

Russia’s federal service agency, the FSB, asked Telegram last year for help deciphering messages sent between users, but the company refused to share its encryption keys and appealed to the country’s highest court, decrying the request as both technically impossible and a violation of its customers’ rights to privacy.

Russia’s Supreme Court last ruled month in the government’s favor, and Roskomnadzor subsequently gave the app 15 days to surrender “information necessary to decode received, transmitted, delivered or processed electronic messages,” but Telegram failed to comply by Wednesday’s deadline and was sued by the watchdog two days later.

“Telegram’s position has not changed — the FSB’s demand to provide decryption keys for messages is unconstitutional, it is not based on law and can be fulfilled neither technically nor legally, which means that the demand to block Telegram is baseless,” Telegram lawyer Ramil Akhmetgaliyev reacted Friday, Russian state-owned media reported.

Messages sent using the app’s “Secret chats” feature are end-to-end encrypted using keys specific to only the sender and recipient, meaning not even Telegram is capable of deciphering those conversations, according to the company.

In a statement, Roskomnadzor said that Telegram had failed to comply with “obligations as the organizer of the dissemination of information” pursuant to federal law.

Telegram boasted 200 million active users worldwide as of March, Reuters reported, including Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There are a lot of messaging services, Telegram is a very convenient one, we have been particularly using it to communicate with journalists,” Mr. Peskov told journalists Friday, Russian media reported.

“A law is a law, and if it is violated and no measures are taken, we will search for an alternative that would fulfill our requirements in the best possible way,” Mr. Peskov said.

FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov alleged earlier this week that terrorists used messaging apps during the course of attempting to coordinate over two dozen domestic attack in 2018, Russia’s Interfax newswire reported.

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