In Trying To Ban Telegram, Russia Breaks The Internet

from the unintended-consequences dept

Russia’s war on encryption and privacy has reached an entirely new level of ridiculous. We’ve noted for a while how Putin’s government has been escalating its war on encrypted services and VPNs in the misguided hope of keeping citizens from dodging government surveillance. But things escalated dramatically when the Russian government demanded that encrypted messaging app Telegram hand over its encryption keys to the FSB. After Telegram refused, a Russian court banned the app entirely last Friday, and the Russian government began trying to actually implement it this week.

It’s not going particularly well.

Telegram tried to mitigate the ban by moving some of its essential infrastructure to third-party cloud services. But Russian telecom regulator Roskomnadzor responded by blocking upwards of 16 million IP addresses, many belonging to Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. Not too surprisingly, the heavy-handed maneuver resulted in connectivity problems across massive swaths of the Russian internet:

Some users say the ban has disrupted the functionality of unrelated online games and services:

And even credit card terminals:

While the Russian government has been portrayed as a technological and hacking mastermind in the wake of its escalating global disinformation and hacking campaign, there’s nothing at all competent about this effort. The Russian government is demanding that both Apple and Google pull encrypted messaging apps from their app stores. They’ve also tried to pressure sideloading websites like APK Mirror into refusing to offer alternative access to the Telegram app. But it’s just another game of Whac-a-Mole, with VPN provider NordVPN saying it saw a 150% spike in Russian usage in the wake of the ban.

The Russian government is claiming that its ham-fisted blockade has resulted in a 30% dip in Telegram usage. But Telegram founder Pavel Durov has downplayed the ban’s impact on overall “user engagement”:

“For the last 24 hours Telegram has been under a ban by internet providers in Russia. The reason is our refusal to provide encryption keys to Russian security agencies. For us, this was an easy decision. We promised our users 100% privacy and would rather cease to exist than violate this promise.

“Despite the ban, we haven?t seen a significant drop in user engagement so far, since Russians tend to bypass the ban with VPNs and proxies. We also have been relying on third-party cloud services to remain partly available for our users there.”

Russian state media meanwhile continues to demonize Telegram as a haven for villains, and is directing users to alternatives like TamTam with alleged ties to the Russian government. All told, it’s another wonderful illustration of how filtering the internet doesn’t work (unless collateral damage and annoyance is your stated goal), and a war on fundamental security and privacy tools only makes everybody less secure. This is not a battle Russia can “win,” but it’s apparently too far down the rabbit hole of bad ideas to stop now.

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Companies: amazon, google, telegram

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Comments on “In Trying To Ban Telegram, Russia Breaks The Internet”

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54 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

“We promised our users 100% privacy and would rather cease to exist than violate this promise. “

Full respect. This is what I’d expect from a company that has my trust. Considering Russia has the lion’s share of Telegram usage this basically means they lost most of their user base. They’ve reached a special place along with Lavabit in my hall of respect and got many trust points.

You can’t go China that easily nowadays, eh?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

This is why the likes of Edward Snowden don’t like how the service is constructed. They DO have the keys, and we don’t know how many other actors have silent access to those keys.

This design has its benefits, as plugins can integrate seamlessly with the service, adding all sorts of group messaging features that are a pain to set up on fully encrypted platforms.

That said, switching to a service like Signal makes much more sense; I think it’s the only mainstream messaging app out there that is fully end-to-end encrypted with no other fingers in the messaging pie.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yes, if I understand it correctly, the session keys are stored server-side, but are all unique. This allows for easy encrypted group chats and sharing of information as long as you know the IDs of the people/bots you want to include. The server does the brokering for you. But anyone asking to decrypt anything will have to ask for the specific key for the chat instance they want to decrypt, as there’s no master key that will unlock everything.

Kyle (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

They could theoretically update the app silently and switch from user-specific private keys over to key pairs known to Telegram. This would enable them to read future communications, but not prior communications. To read prior communications they could have the app send user’s private keys to Telegram. All theoretically possible, and unless you as a user are looking through what the app is doing behind the scenes, you have to trust that the software is doing what the creator says it is doing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Telegram not obeying nation's law! -- Corporations-Uber-Alles!

So why do you complain about Comcast, Verizon, or any other US corporation that doesn’t operate within limits that you want? That’s just “law” of “natural” persons, not Corporate Right!

The clear position is that corporations are above national law, and the logical corollary (that you netwits embrace) is: “FREE” TO RULE YOU OVER YOU.

All I ask is that Techdirt be consistent and stop complaining about what SOME corporations are doing, when your position is that ALL are above nations and we “natural” persons. You’re simply misleading readers into believing that they have some rights or power, when clearly from this, ONE corporation can defy world’s second or third largest military!

But I’m still putting my money on Russia winning this.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Telegram not obeying nation's law! -- Corporations-Uber-Alles!

It’s a very real legal term for an individual human being. As opposed to a legal person, which may be a business entity or government organization.

Only natural persons get equality rights and can hold public office.

The sovereign citizen movement and other delusionals tend to add their own meanings.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Telegram not obeying nation's law! -- Corporations-Uber-Alles!

I know, don’t give him any more ideas…

I’ve been tweeting pictures to Trump of crowds watching nukes being popped back in the 1950s. And declaring that the only reason Trump can’t let Americans watch nuclear explosions on the 4th of July is that other countries won’t let him.

Sorry.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Learn something new every day

Do we even have any indication that this particular AC is a “sovereign citizen” type, beyond Stephen T. Stone’s inferring that from the use of the term “natural person”?

I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with that inference (and subsequent labelling) based on that use, exactly because the term does have this legitimate legal meaning, but it never seemed worth trying to raise the point.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Putting your money on Russia

I think this is one of those situations where Putin’s Russia will win this one for certain definitions of winning. For instance the Kim dynasty has total control on the internet in North Korea. I bet Putin could arrange a similar level of control on his public.

And some people would regard that as a victory of sorts.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Putting your money on Russia

I think Putin’s capable of exerting more control over the Internet than he currently does, but I don’t think it’s possible that he’ll ever reach Kim’s level of control.

First of all, it’s a lot harder to take away access to technology from people who already have it than never to offer it in the first place.

And second, Russia’s borders are a lot longer and a lot less tightly-controlled than NK’s.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Telegram not obeying nation's law! -- Corporations-Uber-Alles!

Still confused I see…

Messaging companies are a dime a dozen (encrypted ones a little less so, but still) while for ISP’s there are basically 3 in the US. Market competition vs Monopoly, I don’t expect your brain to be able to tell the difference, I mean they are both, “CORPS TO RULE OVER YOU”, except there is only one sector where the majority of customers don’t have any other option (as opposed to messaging apps, where users can download any they want, and new companies can create new apps every day, just wait for the TeleStenegPhotoMosiac app that uses photo images to encrypt all other forms of communication, text, music, and video.

It’s coming, it’s the natural evolution of over zealous governmental censorship. By the way I just patented/copyrighted/trademarked the above, so just pay me now…

Anonymous Coward says:

return to the iron curtain

As the re-emerging Cold War continues to push an increasingly paranoid Russia back toward the old days of government totalitarianism and domestic surveillance, among the few things that Russians were known to excel at, we can only expect this will continue much farther. Such events are hardly even newsworthy anymore.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Russian state media meanwhile continues to demonize Telegram as a haven for villains”

Meanwhile the US law enforcement and executive administrations do the same (and all encrypted services) while roundly demonizing Russia for being authoritarian. After all, if you’re a law abiding citizen you have nothing to hide… right?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: US efforts to hobble crypto, "going dark" etc.

Maybe the outcome of this affair will serve as a warning to the FBI and US agencies all to eager to sabotage encryption in the name of law enforcement.

The more pressure from the states, the more the internet will be driven underground, and the more they will ally with (and tolerate) the Anarchists, Lunatics and Terrorists crowd.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: US efforts to hobble crypto, "going dark" etc.

Doubt it. There’s a cognitive dissociation between what US government agencies promote as being “The American Way” and everything else being “Foreign authoritarian/socialist agenda”. For historical references you can refer to the McCarthy witch hunt for Anti-American ideas – anyone that ran counter to the approved ideal of mom & apple pie. Conveniently ignored that the Soviets routinely did the same thing with the primary difference being the Soviets and Chinese disappeared people while McCarthy “merely” ruined livelihoods. Either way freedom of speech and thought, supposedly the backbone of The American Way, went right out the window. And don’t give me the bullshit about there are consequences to expressive speech. The US Gov has no right to persecute anyone for expressing contrarian ideas nor should we condone such behavior in our fellow citizens. We can’t even hold a civilized discussion these days without people being berated, belittled, and persecuted for holding differing beliefs from some idealized norm (for some varying value of normal).

This is more of the same in the name of anti-terrorism. If you don’t support “us” then you support “them”. And if you support privacy then you support “them” and are therefore suspect. There’s more than enough people to support this point of view that freedom of speech should be limited to approved “Right Think” and if you have “nothing to hide” then you don’t need privacy and encryption. This is not a conservative or liberal problem. Its a fundamental problem of authoritarianism regardless of the ideology being foisted.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: US efforts to hobble crypto, "going dark" etc.

Conveniently ignored that the Soviets routinely did the same thing with the primary difference being the Soviets and Chinese disappeared people while McCarthy "merely" ruined livelihoods.

Although of course the US routinely allied itself with regimes in S. America and elsewhere that did "disappear" people.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Americanism

Last July, I wrote a piece on American Exceptionalism, what it is, how it compares to other we’re-so-awesome-and-they’re-not ideologies. And yes, the notion is very alluring to the public that people under their flag or their faith or their family crest are superior in quantifiable ways to people who aren’t. And we humans seem to be eager to go out of our way if it means we can retain such beliefs without challenge.

That said, maybe the outcome of this affair will serve as an example of what to do (or what not to do) when state interests decide to mandate hobbled encryption or internet censorship.

Then again, companies are closing down or adding draconian terms of service in response to FOSTA / SESTA. It may take some time before we rally with an appropriate counter.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: US efforts to hobble crypto, "going dark" etc.

Unlikely. If US Law Enforcement is half as clever as they claim to be, they can run the same models that the private sector has run, and see that they’re on the wrong side of the security/privacy argument. They’ve been on the wrong side for years, and show no sign of publicly admitting their error, nor of abandoning their foolish quest. The dispute between Russia and Telegram will make US Law Enforcement look worse to those who pay attention, but most attentive users already have a pretty low opinion of USLE on this point.

Anonymous Coward says:

i find it strange that up until not that long ago, China was constantly condemned for the way it flouted all attempts to improve and criticism of the way it treated it’s people, the way there was no privacy or freedom and the government controlled everything. along comes the USA, doing exactly what China has been doing, using any bullshit reason and excuse it can think of to try to do the same thing, remove privacy, remove freedom, remove freedom of speech, invade all personal communications, despite the type and whether on or off the Internet, invade all journeys undertaken by everyone, regardless of the destination, the length of stay and the reasons and invade all personal devices whether at the borders or within whatever distance the CBP decide suits them on the day.

then we get Russia, doing basically the same as china, the same as the USA, the same as the UK (now) and the EU and almost every other country, all following the lead of the USA just because it has decided that everyone is stealing music and movies and the flourishing industries wont survive, that everyone is a terrorist, that everyone is hacking into the government and the military (both of which have been caught for using illegal software etc!) and now people are kicking off! hasn’t it yet dawned on people that if the USA hadn’t gone down this road in the first place, maybe, just maybe other nations wouldn’t have hought that doing the same thing was ok? perhaps there would still be some privacy and some freedom, the very things that have been fought for and so many died for that are supposed to make for a democracy? the things that the USA is supposed to be so adamant it is (on the surface) but appears to be the exact opposite in reality, yet still condemns and complains when other nations follow it’s lead. how hypocritical can you get??

Anonymous Coward says:

Russian state media meanwhile continues to demonize Telegram as a haven for villains, and is directing users to alternatives like TamTam with alleged ties to the Russian government.

You’re missing an interesting component: many government officials are still using Telegram despite all this. THEY don’t want to move to TamTam… so why should anyone else?

Anonymous Coward says:

That is one reason, why, when travelling anywhere, you should set up a VPN on your home computer, before you leave. This is peferable to using commercial VPN services.

I like to take road trips all over North America, having a VPN set up on my computer computer will let me listen to radio stations on iHeart or Sirius XM, on my phone, when I am in Mexico or Canada. Android smartphones with 4.2 or above have VPN built in. All I have to do is sign on to my VPN, then connect to what I want to listen to, and it will appear to those services like I am connecting from home network, instead of from Canada, Mexico, or Central America.

While the bridge to Russia from Alaska will likely never be built in my lifetime, having the ability to connec to my own VPN on my home computer will obviously be something needed if I ever get the chance to drive to Russia someday. I could bypass all Russian blocking by connecting to my home VPN, as wel as bypass geofencing that iHeart, Hulu, Sirius, Netflix, and others have. Using my home VPN for this purpose does break any Russian, Alaskan, Canadian, American, or Mexican laws.

Having my own home VPN also saves me money on some hotel WiFi. One hotel in San Diego once wanted $25 a day, instead of $9, if you wanted to use streaming services, such as affoementioned. By connecting to my VPN at home, I could watch Netflix movies, using the $9 service, instead of paying $25. My VPN allowed me to bypass the San Diego Westin’s filtering restrictions for the lower priced Wifi. Using my home VPN to bypass Westin’s restrictions did not break either the CFAA, or the California computer crime law. On either service level, they cannot block VPN, since there are a lot of business people staying there who need VPN to connect to their office computers, so blocking VPN is not an option

Andreas says:

Security should be a number one topic

I am very proud to see my vpn provider next to security-related topics. I like Telegram position in this case, which they are not giving up and they are ready to fight and talk about it even if traffic coming from Russia is only a few percents. I bought a vpn after Equipfax data scandal last year. It’s an everyday companion for me because it has many extra features for mobile, router or pc. I found this website selling it for the best price. https://vpnspecial.com/comparison-table/. at least during these scandals, people started to care more about their privacy.

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