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Russian bill requires encryption backdoors in all messenger apps

The crypto war returns to Moscow.


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Posted on Jun 20, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 2:04 pm CDT

Backdoors into encrypted communications may soon be mandatory in Russia.

A new bill in the Russian Duma, the country’s lower legislative house, proposes to make cryptographic backdoors mandatory in all messaging apps in the country so the Federal Security Service—the successor to the KGB—can obtain special access to all communications within the country.

Apps like WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram, all of which offer varying levels of encrypted security for messages, are specifically targeted in the “anti-terrorism” bill, according to Russian-language media. Fines for offending companies could reach 1 million rubles or about $15,000.

The new Russian legislation, which has already been approved by the Committee on Security, is just the latest such flare up in a global debate over encryption that earned a bright spotlight in the U.S. earlier this year, particularly after the San Bernardino terrorist attack led the FBI to plead for access to one of the shooter’s encrypted iPhones.

Russian Senator Yelena Mizulina argued that the new bill ought to become law because, she said, teens are brainwashed in closed groups on the internet to murder police officers, a practice protected by encryption. Mizulina then went further.

“Maybe we should revisit the idea of pre-filtering [messages],” she said. “We cannot look silently on this.” 

Encryption uses advanced mathematics to protect data so that even the world’s most powerful computers cannot unlock data they are not meant to have access to. The technology is used in various ways to protect everything from credit card transactions on the internet to your emails and internet traffic.

Government focus on encryption intensified in recent months after Apple and Google offered encryption options on their smartphones. WhatsApp, with over 1 billion users around the world, offers encryption on messaging. 

The technology is seen as a fundamental cornerstone of cybersecurity, such that if a business is not using encryption to protect sensitive data, it’s often deemed irresponsible by experts. 

But just as encryption keeps out crooks, it keeps out governments, law enforcement, and intelligence agency spying. That’s led to high-level debates around the globe about the rising popularity of encryption.

While government authorities around the world argue in favor of special access backdoors, a vast consensus of technologists argue such backdoors will undermine cybersecurity and create an internet more dangerous and volatile than ever before.

H/T Anton Nesterov

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*First Published: Jun 20, 2016, 5:50 pm CDT