Russia has recently begun blocking Amazon and Google IPs en masse — 1.8 million, as of now. The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, otherwise known as Roskomnadzor, is the governmental body responsible for censorship in the media throughout Russia. On Friday, they began to block the Telegram app, a ruling backed by Russian courts which will serve to enforce the banning of Telegram. These alternate IP addresses had been used to bypass the Telegram block, but authorities continue to shut droves of alternate IPs down.
Iran also recently shut down the Telegram app. They claimed that the app had played a “destructive role” in the riots that went on over New Years, which protested the government, economy and several other issues. Iran has been seeking to develop what some call a “halal-net,” which would essentially be a closed internet, tightly restricted and governed by authorities.
Telegram has also been blocked in China. In 2015, they attributed the block to a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack, though many point to how it had been a preferred app by human rights organizations and whistleblowers who were trying to use the app to spread information and organize like-minded individuals. Instead, the Chinese offers their own messaging apps.
Many people in these countries have turned to using a “Virtual private network,” or a VPN. This has been a popular method at circumventing the restrictions applied by the governments that aim to restrict any sort of rallying cry from the opposition.
Why is Telegram so popular among the people in these countries? The main difference from, say, WhatsApp, is the secret chat mode. It allows for the messages to be set to self destruct, notifies the user if someone takes a screenshot of the conversation, and end-to-end encryption to maximize privacy. It’s interface has proved effective to serve as an app for rallying groups opposed to restrictive governments.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the government can’t access the app as many have assumed. The Russian government has taken a public stance against Telegram, but has “failed” to block it up to this point — yet they are successfully blocking all of the other associated IP addresses. Iran and China have successfully blocked the app.
Based on their apparent approach to block the app, many have assumed that the government is fighting back against the company’s refusal to hand over encryption keys. This fits the narrative that is being pushed around; Telegram claims not to hold the encryption keys, so they wouldn’t be able to give them up even if they wanted to. Let’s think for a moment; what if they could? The application is entirely closed source, so how can we prove their innocence? If the government have access (encryption keys) to Telegram, they could pretend to try and block it across the country. They could conveniently fail to block it entirely, as they have been, and Telegram will become a central tool for those who oppose the Russian government. The opposition will think: “Thankfully the government failed to crack Telegram — why else would they have tried to block it? It must be an effective tool.” Not only will that provide a false sense of security for those who use it, but it will drive even more to the platform. Then, if the Russian government has access, they sit back and collect data — driving users to the one spot they know they can conduct effective surveillance.
However, this is purely speculative at this point. Being closed-source, it is practically impossible for a third-party to tell whether or not the Russian government would or would not have the ability to bypass the encryption. Russia’s intelligence apparatus can be tricky — these sorts of psyop tactics are not so unrealistic. If it were open-sourced, experts would be able to dive into the code to verify Telegram’s claims and be able to substantiate whether or not the user holds the keys, or Telegram.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.