The Kremlin Takes on Telegram

How Russia dealt with the ban of a popular private messaging app

Left (Source: Radio Freedom); Right (Source: Twitter/ @teh_Moriarty).

On Monday, April 16, activists gathered in front of the Federal Security Service (FSB — ФСБ) in Moscow to protest the ban of the popular private app Telegram Messenger in Russia. The activists threw paper planes at the building. Police detained 13 people, reported independent Russian media outlet Mediazona. One of the detainees was the former member of the Russian protest-art collective Pussy Riot, and co-founder of Mediazona, Maria Alekhina.

The activity came as a response to the decision of the Moscow district court of Tagansk on April 13.

On April 15, Alekhina — together with an Christian Orthodox activist Dimitry Tsoryonov (Etno) — created a Facebook event calling to protest the ban of Telegram Messenger.

(Source: Facebook / Masha Alekhina)

In her opening post Alekhina wrote:

On Friday, April 13, the Tagansk court granted the FSB blockage of the Telegram messenger on the territory of Russia.

Article 23 of the constitution of Russia says that each of us has the right to private correspondence, telephone conversations, postal, telegraph and other communications.

The decision to block telegram is a direct suppression of our constitutional right to the private correspondence.

Tomorrow, on April 16 at 18–00 we will go from Solovetsky stone and launch paper planes together.

for ours and your freedom

A similar act of protest was carried out on April 13 in St. Petersburg when the liberal Russian youth movement Vesna (tr. Spring) placed two thousand paper planes at the doors of the St. Petersburg office of The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor). Vesna’s web page mentioned similar events in Rostov-na-Donu, Chelabinsk, Penz, and Orel.
 
Nevertheless, according to the Russian version of the German public broadcasting service Deutsche Welle (DW), the rest of Russian society took it more calmly by finding ways to circumvent the ban.
 
Why did Russian authorities decide to block Telegram Messenger, and how did they do it?

The Court Case

According to the decision published on the joint Moscow Court Portal, the reason for banning the messaging app was due to its inability to hand in encryption keys that would allow the Russian security services to read messages of its citizens.

The highlighted words in this extract from the legal document outline the essence of the argument the decision was based on.

(Source: The Courts of Joint Moscow Jurisdiction, Official Portal)

The document read:

Telegram’s excuse which was mentioned in an answer to Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) about inability to fulfil the duty due to technical reasons, cannot be the base to reject the demand, because Telegram is an organization that is distributing information and is obliged to fulfil obligations of handing in information to decode electronical messages.

According to independent Russian media outlet Novaya Gazeta, Maria Smelyanskay, who is a representative of the federal organization Roscomnadzor that filed law suit against Telegram, explained the necessity to access private messages with national security risks.

Smelyanskaya said:

Information that is distributed in Telegram may contain extremism, terrorism, and they represent a threat to the Russian Federation and all citizens, including users of the messenger.

The document outlining the court’s decision mentioned that a year ago, on April 14, 2017, Roskomnadzor sent a letter to Telegram Messenger asking to submit encryption keys by July 19, 2017. Apparently, app company did not submit the keys, and on October 16, 2017, Moscow district court of Meshchansk fined the company with penalty of 800,000 rubles or over 13,000 American dollars.

On March 20, 2018, Roskomnadzor granted Telegram Messenger 15 additional days to fulfil the request. This time on April 3, 2018, Telegram responded that it was not technically possible. On April 10, 2018, Roskomnadzor filed the law suit against Telegram.

The Ban Went Active

According to Novaya Gazeta’s report, the head of the Roskomnadzor Alexander Zharov saw the ban of Telegram as an act of warfare. Zharov said:

Imagine, there is a battle, and you ask: “ When will you start the attack?” Well, in the near future. I will not say when exactly. I will not tell you the exact time we will start shutting down the Telegram. This is a bomb for journalists. My job is to do it technically and immensely. It’s about the days, maybe about the hours, maybe about minutes.

As predicted, the ban started on Monday, April 16. The first thing Roskomnadzor did was force internet providers to block Telegram. It also sent a request to the App Store and Google Play to remove the app. APK Mirror, a marketplace for Android apps asked its customers for feedback on the Russian government’s request.

By the end of the day, the independent Russian media outlet Meduza reported that at least four major internet providers in Russia had blocked access to Telegram.

Soon enough instructions began to appear on how to go around the block. The instruction published on Meduza suggested to use Virtual Private Networks (VPN), “Tor” browser and other anonymizers, as well as enabling the proxy server option that Telegram launched in 2017. At the same time, the article mentioned that Roskomnadzor maintains the ability to ban these work around solutions in the future.

Later, Roskomnadzor started sending out notifications to proxy and VPN services about the Telegram ban.

Text translated from Russian: “Zharov has gone cuckoo. The RCC has begun blocking one of our VPN-nodes under the pretext of EXTREMISM to circumvent the VPN blocking procedure and bring the Prosecutor’s Office under the “rubber” decision.” (Source: Telegram / IT уголовные дела СОРМ россиюшка)

By the end of April 17, Roskomnadzor blacklisted at least 16.3 million IP addresses.

The blocking activities affected another messaging app Viber, which formerly complied with Roskomnadzor’s demand to access its users’ private correspondence, as well as some Telegram users in Belarus.

On April 17, the founder of Telegram, Pavel Durov, summed up the first 24 hours of the block and outlined the actions he intended to take next.

(Source: VK / Pavel Durov)

On April 17, he wrote on his VKontakt (ВКонтакте or VK) wall:

Thanks for the support and dedication to Telegram — together we could survive the first 24 hours of blocking.

As the last day has shown, in their war with progress, Russian authorities are ready to block millions of IP-addresses of cloud-hosting providers, without bothering about losses of other projects.

In addition, the Russian authorities are fighting independent proxy / VPN services, many of which stop working (if this happens, turn off the proxy in the Telegram settings and try to find another one).

Although the Russian market does not make up a significant share of Telegram’s user base, it is important for us for personal reasons.

Within Digital Resistance — a decentralized movement in defense of digital freedoms and progress — I began to pay bitcoin grants to proxy and vpn administrators. This year I will be glad to donate millions of dollars from personal funds for these purposes. I encourage everyone to join and participate — set up proxy / vpn servers or their financing.

On April 18, in an interview with Russian media outlet Izvestia, Zharov mentioned that Facebook may also be subject to prosecution by Roskomnadzor. He said:

Until the end of 2018, we will conduct a company audit, and there are several points to be met: localization of databases of Russian citizens in Russia, the removal of all forbidden information — and they are already significantly late in due time — and in compliance with other laws.

Conclusion

The ban of Telegram Messenger after the company failed to fulfil the request to submit the encryption keys for its users’ private messages, was what the Russian technology site Digital Report called the biggest in the Russian history. This time Roskomnadzor not only made internet providers block the messenger, but also notified VPN and proxy services about their obligation to block access to content concerning violent extremism.

Russian civic society took non-violent forms of protest against the ban. Nevertheless, 13 activists were detained in Moscow after throwing paper planes.

The head of Roskomnadzor warned that Facebook might suffer the same consequences by the end of 2018.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor the situation and any further crackdowns on various engagement and communications platforms by the Russian government.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.