Instant messaging apps: Social resource or security threat?

Is tighter government regulation of instant messaging apps using encryption really needed? Where is the line between user friendliness and national security threat? Internet expert Anton Merkurov reflects upon the matters for RBTH.

Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Dmitry Divin

While young, the instant messaging software market already boasts some impressive figures, like the 800 million users of WhatsApp, the 600 million users of the Chinese-developed QQ or the 250 million users of Viber. The messaging apps' functionality is expanding – you can find gaming, media, magazines and even money transfer services there. Messaging apps are the new social networks. Unsurprisingly, they have attracted attention from security services, as well as terrorists and revolutionaries.

When the United Kingdom was hit by riots motivated by racial and social tensions in 2011, a lot of observers claimed Blackberry Messenger – a built-in instant messaging system on the eponymous phones – played a key role in spreading the unrest.

Pavel Durov, founder of the popular Russian social networking site VK and Telegram Messenger, has recently had to face criticism due to the actions of certain would-be terrorists in Australia and even those of the very real terrorists from Islamic State (ISIS). Both groups have used Telegram to coordinate their actions.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron went as far as to virtually demand that all messaging services disable encryption in the name of vaguely defined national security concerns – a request later echoed by FBI director James Comey. However, these loud statements – criticized by Pavel Durov, among others – have so far remained just statements.


Don’t shoot the messenger 

The right to communicate freely is something that is not easy to take away from people. And in the case of instant messaging services, intelligence agencies – being unable to ensure mass surveillance – have to act more selectively.

Those who criticize messengers love to shift the blame from short-sighted politicians and incompetent security services to the developers of communication tools. But it is extremely important to understand that messengers don't have any special functions that make it easier to commit a crime – it's not like they offer their users to “click here to get a revolution” after all. What those critics tend to overlook is the underlying causes that drive students to smash shop windows in London or compel Islamists to capture new victims.

Similar attempts to control communication in encrypted messengers are being made in Russia, too. Back in August, Nikolai Patrushev, former head of the country’s security service, the FSB, and current secretary of the Security Council of Russia, said Russian officials should not use popular instant messaging services to discuss government matters. His reasons? The threat from foreign intelligence agents. As for the fact that officials using such services can also keep their dealings hidden from the public eye, this somehow wasn't mentioned.


No alternatives

Nevertheless, Russian officials have nothing to worry about at the moment. Firstly, they do not have any government-approved alternative communication methods anyway. Secondly, separating discussions of official matters and informal socializing in messengers is problematic. Even now, you can find Russian state ministers, presidential administration employees and numerous other officials among the users of Telegram.

Still, Patrushev's initiative is a concern for ordinary Russian users, since they fear it will be extended to them. Intimidated by the revelations of Edward Snowden, the ubiquitous surveillance and the omnipresent cyber threats, users simply want to communicate in a reliable and secure way. And since messengers provide this by technical, rather than political means, authorities everywhere have no chance of prevailing. Controlling the way we communicate is unacceptable, and that's all there is to say about that. 

Anton Merkurov is an internet expert and representative of Open Garden (the developer behind FireChat)

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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