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Russian Journalists To Sue Security Service Over Demand For Telegram Encryption Keys

Russian journalists Oleg Kashin (left) and Aleksandr Plyushchev (composite file photo)
Russian journalists Oleg Kashin (left) and Aleksandr Plyushchev (composite file photo)

Two prominent Russian journalists say they will sue their country's main security agency over its demand that Telegram hand over encryption keys enabling authorities to decipher encoded messages transmitted on the popular app.

The announcement by Oleg Kashin, an acerbic observer of Russia’s political landscape, and radio personality Aleksandr Plyushchev on October 25 comes less than two weeks after a Moscow court fined Telegram for refusing to provide its encryption keys to the Federal Security Service (FSB).

The messaging app, founded by enigmatic Russian tech mogul Pavel Durov but with developers now reportedly based in Dubai, has become a vibrant forum for political discussion in Russia, with prominent media outlets, journalists, and analysts maintaining popular channels.

The FSB has demanded that Telegram, which Durov and his brother founded in 2013 before its team "had to leave Russia due to local IT regulations," provide the app's encryption keys in order to comply with controversial counterterrorism laws that rights groups say violate privacy and can be used to stifle dissent.

Kashin said in the October 25 statement on his Telegram channel that he and Plyushchev believe that the FSB's demands on the messaging app "concern our right to confidential communication with sources."

"Trusting one another, my interlocutors and I always expect that our conversations won't end up in the hands of third parties," Kashin said. "And now, the Federal Security Service, using its special position in the government, is trying to violate our rights, and thereby harming all of society."

Tightening Grip

Russian authorities have increasingly tightened their grip on the country’s media landscape since President Vladimir Putin came to power nearly 18 years ago, leaving social-media networks and other digital forums as the country’s main outlets for freewheeling political debate.

But rights activists and media watchdogs accuse authorities of trying to rein in voices critical of the government online as well, often under the guise of countering extremism and terrorism. Senior Russian officials have dismissed these accusations as baseless.

Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov (file photo)
Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov (file photo)

Durov announced in 2014 that he had left Russia, saying he had sold his stake in VKontakte, the popular Russian-language social-networking site that he founded, after he refused to hand over personal data about Ukrainian opposition activists to the FSB.

He has said he intends to appeal the October 16 ruling by Moscow’s Meshchansky District Court fining Telegram 800,000 rubles ($14,000) over its refusal to provide its encryption keys to the FSB.

"The FSB's effort to get access to personal correspondence is an attempt to expand its influence at the expense of the constitutional rights of citizens," Durov wrote on VKontakte following the decision.

Kashin told RFE/RL in a telephone interview on October 25 that, while he has not seen eye-to-eye with Durov on many things, he is not "indifferent" to Telegram’s fate.

"I would really be unhappy if the contents of my communications, or other information I do not want to share, ended up in the hands of people I don’t trust," Kashin said.

Kashin, who suffered a brutal beating by assailants wielding metal rods in Moscow in 2010, and Plyushchev each have more than 17,000 subscribers to their respective Telegram channels.

'Precedent Setting'

Kashin told RFE/RL that he was in the process of finishing up the paperwork for the lawsuit, which he said would be filed with the Meshchansky court. He added, however, that given the FSB’s "special" place in Russia, he is not expecting the court to rule in his favor.

The Agora rights group, which is representing Telegram in its clash with the FSB, is slated to represent Kashin and Plyushchev in their lawsuit as well.

The lawyer assigned to the lawsuit, Damir Gainutdinov, told RFE/RL that the matter could be "precedent-setting."

"After the FSB demanded these so-called encryption keys, any Telegram user now has a right to appeal to the courts because divulging these algorithms and giving these back doors to security services threatens the privacy of communications of any user," Gainutdinov said.

Durov said last month that Telegram has around 10 million users in Russia.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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