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Russian App Founder Defies Kremlin Demand For Private Data

Pavel Durov
Pavel Durov

Russian social networking entrepreneur Pavel Durov is defying a Russian government demand to hand over data and secrets of his encrypted-messaging service, saying the blocking of his app by the Kremlin would only force private conversations by Russian officials and others to be conducted over U.S.-controlled apps.

Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor on June 23 threatened to block Durov’s Telegram Messenger app unless he hands over details about the service, which markets itself on its strict privacy policies.

In an open letter to Telegram, Roskomnadzor chief Aleksandr Zharov said that if Telegram does not comply with its demands, the app "shall be blocked in Russia until we receive the needed information."

Zharov said he has not heard back from his "public appeal" to Durov -- who also was the founder of Russia's popular social networking site VK.

Telegram promotes itself as an encrypted messaging and content-sharing tool for smartphones and computers that allows free international communication with a “secret chat” feature that promises extra protection against eavesdroppers.

The so-called “secret chat” function allows messages, photos, videos, and scanned documents to be sent using a security protocol known in the industry as end-to-end encryption.

End-to-end encryption is meant to work in a way that doesn’t allow anybody to have the key to see an encoded message except the sender and the recipient — not government monitors, not computer hackers, and not even the messaging service itself. That makes it much harder for third parties to intercept the messages.

Some governments have said Durov's encrypted-messaging app is used by terrorist organizations to conduct operations in secret.

But Telegram Messenger also is used by rights activists and political opposition figures in countries of the Middle East and Asia that are ruled by authoritarian governments, including Iran.

Durov claims the move by Russia's communications regulator would require Telegram to share with the Russian government the chat histories of users -- some of whom are Russian officials -- along with the service's encryption keys.

Durov said in a post on his social media page on June 23 that blocking Telegram would amount to "sabotage of state interests."

He said if "Telegram is blocked, correspondence of Russian officials and their communications with friends and relatives and other sensitive data will go via WhatsApp/Viber to Apple iCloud/Google Drive controlled by the United States."

In December 2013, Durov was pressured by the Kremlin to sell his 12 percent stake in the VK social network to Ivan Tavrin, the owner of the Russian Internet company now owns 100 percent of VK's shares.

In April 2014, after Durov had refused to hand over data from Ukrainian Euromaidan protesters to Russian federal law enforcement, he resigned as VK's chief executive officer -- saying that VK has been effectively taken over by Russian President Vladimir Putin's allies.

Durov then fled Russia, stating publicly that the country is "incompatible with Internet business," and has lived abroad in self-imposed exile.

With reporting by AP, Sky News, TASS, The Sunday Morning Herald, and RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz
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