Russia to stop officials from using WhatsApp and Skype?

The ban may concern the WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram messaging services, as well as Skype and Gmail. Source: Reuters

The ban may concern the WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram messaging services, as well as Skype and Gmail. Source: Reuters

Legislators in Russia are also worried about encrypted communication systems, because IT security experts believe they could contain ‘backdoors’ to which secret services may have access.

Russian legislators, ministers and members of the armed forces could soon themselves unable to use popular instant messaging services like WhatsApp, Skype and Viber for work purposes.

The Communications Ministry sent a bill to Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 30, proposing to ban officials and servicemen from using foreign mobile apps for work-related correspondence.

Russian officials have been constantly spooked over the past three years by the Shaltai-Boltai hackers group (also known as Anonymous International), which has regularly posted work correspondence from influential state officials, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and sold large quantities for bitcoins.

For their work correspondence, victims of the Shaltai leaks used both Russian (one of Medvedev's mail boxes was Yandex) and foreign mail and communication services, but authorities have now decided – for reasons of national security, they insist – to fight against the latter.

The problem of government officials using non-state communication tools for work-related correspondence is not limited to Russia. In 2015, the world found out that former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had sent secret information from her private, unprotected email account.

Who may be banned?

The ban may include the WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram messaging services, as well as Skype and Gmail. The Kommersant newspaper estimates that the ban on messaging systems alone could lose around 2.5 million clients.

According to TNS, the total number of Skype, WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram users in Russia in March 2016 was close to 22 million people.

Russian officials like messaging services, particularly Telegram, which was developed by Pavel Durov, the "father" of Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. Officials consider Telegram to be the safest method of communication, said German Klimenko, Russia’s presidential advisor for the internet, at a presidential administration meeting.

"It's just easy to use," said Karen Kazaryan, chief analyst at the Russian Association of Electronic Communications, since the mail services at state institutions (that is, the protected ones with very limited access) "are completely unsuitable for modern needs. In terms of their interface they are hopelessly out of date."

Foreign messaging services have not expressed any concern for now.

"We believe that private correspondence will remain with the usual messaging services," said Yelena Gracheva, Viber's Moscow representative.

Really safe or not?

Some instant messaging apps are trying to prove to Russian users that they are safe. Viber insists that its end-to-end encryption and hidden chats is one of the safest services of its kind.

"They work according to the end-to-end principle when, theoretically, access to correspondence is possible only through the user's smartphone. The same applies for Telegram and Signal, which Edward Snowden has made famous. And, more recently, also WhatsApp and iMessage," explained Kazaryan.

Information security experts have, however, denied that the advertised encryption was invulnerable, even posting instructions on the net for remotely breaking into secret chats.

Natalya Kasperskaya, general director of InfoWatch, said this was why talk about special services not being able to access correspondence is untrue.

"Unfortunately, all modern messaging apps can have a backdoor – remote access for foreign special services," said Kasperskaya.

The idea of one window

The presidential administration has already decided to develop a substitute for foreign instant messaging apps. The proposal has been given to Mail.Ru Group, one of Russia’s leading internet and IT companies, and the Institute of Internet Development headed by presidential advisor Klimenko.

Apparently, officials believe that if they have one standard messaging service, it will be easier to remove the vulnerability of the system and guarantee its safety, instead of several dozen different systems, which belong to foreign companies and are therefore uncontrollable.

Meanwhile, Kazaryan believes there are many Russian companies that can develop the messaging services and introduce them without the government paying.

"It would be good if everything was done openly, on a competitive basis," he said.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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