Russia this week blocked hundreds of thousands of Amazon Web Services (AWS) sites in an apparent attempt to eliminate the secure Telegram messaging service from its borders. In the process, however, the government also disabled a number of legitimate websites operating in the country as well.
Telegram is a service akin to WhatsApp that’s rapidly replacing the latter because messages sent over it are encrypted and not linked to Facebook data sharing.
Russian, however, doesn’t want its citizens using Telegram, presumably because government can’t spy on them then–although the official reasoning is it’s an anti-terrorism method because Telegram officials is skirting new laws requiring the decryption of messages. Earlier this month, a Russian court officially blocked Telegram from being used in the country.
On Monday, Russia’s federal censor directed the country’s ISPs to block hundreds of thousands of AWS IP addresses that were being used to bypass the Telegram ban, according to a report in the Riga-based Russian online newspaper and news aggregator Meduza.
Roskomnadzor, the Russian equivalent to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission–but arguably with a heavier censorship foot–posted a list of IP addresses ISPs are required to block, with about 800,000 subnets on the agency’s black list.
In its zeal, however, Roskomnadzor created a bit of a clusterf*** for itself, knocking out access to a number of other and presumably legitimate sites and even bank and credit-card terminals in the process of accomplishing its take-down to-do list.
Bank websites, Gmail, online stores and even access to cash-withdrawal machines also were blocked by the move, according to reports.
“Several Russian e-wallet services and at least two banks are suffering online outages today,” Meduza gloated on Twitter. “Why? Because the govt blocked 655 THOUSANDS [of] IP addresses belonging to Amazon.”
The Telegram move also reportedly affected the Kremlin, which is now officially using the ICQ messenger service.
Alexander Zharov, head of Roskomnadzor, confirmed the blocking of the sites to a Russian news agency.
“We had an unloading subnet Amazon, which went to Telegram,” he said. “The point is that the third point of the court decision prescribes that Roskomnadzor and other legal entities do not create conditions for technical access to the blocked messenger. We comply with the court decision.” (Text translated)
Zharov also told Russian news service Interfax on Monday the government plans to block any tools and VPN services that allow people in Russia to get around the Telegram ban.
“If you pay attention to the law on the organizers of the dissemination of information on which we work, we take our actions following those documents that come to us from bodies that have functions operatively–search activity. Apparently, we will continue to act exactly the same,” he said. (Text translated.)
Russia tried to defend its blocking of Telegram ahead of the move, posting an everybody’s-doing-it defense on its state news agency (TASS), according to U.K.-based security researcher Alec Muffet.
The document claims its block of Telegram had precedence in similar actions taken by the European Union, United Kingdom and China, setting a dangerous precedent to preventing people’s right to privacy, he said.
“So: when the Russian government decide they want to block encrypted messengers, they first get the state news agency (TASS) to post a document contextualising why what they’re doing is the same as the EU, UK, China, etc, do, in order to “normalise,” Muffet tweeted.
The root of the whole mess is that Russia put into effect strict anti-terrorism laws in 2016 requiring messaging services to provide government authorities the ability to decrypt messages. Telegram has run afoul of the Russian government by refusing to comply with these laws.
For better or worse, the company shows no signs of backing down. Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov responded to the ban earlier in the week decrying the financial motivation for most IT corporations and vowing to continue to protect privacy on its service.
“At any given moment, a government can crash their stocks by threatening to block revenue streams from its markets and thus force these companies to do strange things (remember how last year Apple moved iCloud servers to China),” he posted on Durov’s Channel. “At Telegram, we have the luxury of not caring about revenue streams or ad sales. Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.”
It remains to be seen the extent to which Russia’s zealous blocking and Telegram’s steadfast refusal to comply will have on access to websites and other Internet-based services in the country. However, as the story continues to develop, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Roskomnadzor’s actions cause further disruption.