Russia has made it abundantly clear: If the government can’t see its citizens’ conversations, then they just can’t have them.
In mid-April, the country’s top spy agency FSB moved to block Telegram - a wildly popular messaging app that allows users to send encoded chats - after the company refused to hand over the keys that would allow the agency to decrypt the conversations.
It’s hardly the first time authoritarian leadership has put a lid on services that allow citizens to freely and privately communicate, but it does illustrate the lengths users are willing to go to protect their information from being seen by anyone other than the intended recipient.
According to reports, despite being explicitly banned, the company’s founder Pavel Durov has stated user counts in the country has hardly dipped. This lack of a decline suggests citizens are using tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent the ban.
Still, there’s been an impact. Companies like Google and Amazon have felt the pinch. Because the Russian government has ordered a shutdown on more than 18 million IP addresses that allow users to continue to use Telegram, affected cloud-services businesses could see up to $1 billion in losses as a result and more than 46,000 complaints have been received.
It’s clear that citizens looking to keep their data private will need to be increasingly crafty. Using VPNs in Russia, or importing phones and other devices that spoof their geographical location, has so far seemed to keep Telegram’s user base from plummeting. But if even more aggressive regimes are any indication, there are plenty more tactics the Russian government can employ to crack down even further.
Take China for example. In some cases, citizens had used VPN apps and services to simply ensure their data was private, or access a banned social network like Facebook to communicate with friends in other countries. In other cases, they may have used this tech to skirt state surveillance and organize protests or other unsanctioned activities.
Yet these controls even deeper. Chinese students and researchers rely on the services of Google and Dropbox to collaborate on projects with colleagues and the VPN makes this possible. Students access YouTube for film editing or production while others rely on it for language courses. This is just the tip of the iceberg on the effects of political based internet filtering.
Free speech in danger
Whatever the case, this type of free and open communication taken for granted in a democracy wasn’t going to go unchecked. China has effectively shut down any and all VPN apps and services — and while it may seem surprising, it’s done so with the cooperation of recognizable international players like Apple.
How? China uses its massive population as leverage. If Apple was to continue marketing and selling its products in the country, it needed to promise the Chinese Apple App Store was devoid of any product that would allow for the kind of free communication found elsewhere.
It remains to be seen how far Russia is willing to go to keep apps like Telegram out of the hands of its citizens. It is, however, apparent that this type of limitation on free, open and most of all private communication will continue to be threatened globally.
And it’s not to say encrypted communication comes without consequence. In the case of Russia and Telegram, the state claims the basis of its demands for access to the decrypted data is related to an investigation into the St. Petersburg train bombing that killed 15 people.
But for every nefarious reason a citizen might opt to encrypt their conversations, there’s many more whose motive is a basic desire for privacy. It’s more than likely that the most oppressive regimes – North Korea and Iran among them - will continue to not only black out encrypted communication, but proactively develop techniques and technology that keeps access to all information under tight control.
- Francis Dinha is the CEO of OpenVPN. OpenVPN is an open-source software application that implements virtual private network techniques to create secure point-to-point or site-to-site connections in routed or bridged configurations and remote access facilities. It underpins the majority of VPN software in the market.