Telegram founder assures users that new privacy policy doesn't mean he's getting in bed with the FSB

Meduza

The instant messenger Telegram has rewritten its privacy policy, and Russians are raising their eyebrows at Section 8.3, where the network now says it may disclose users’ IP addresses and phone numbers “to the relevant authorities,” if it “receives a court order [confirming] that you’re a terror suspect.” Telegram says it’s yet to surrender any information on these grounds, but it will record future cases in a “semiannual transparency report.”

Pavel Chikov, the head of the “Agora” human rights group, which is defending Telegram in Russia’s courts, told the website Durov’s Code that he believes it’s too early to speculate about the consequences of the company’s new policy. “As Telegram’s representatives, we’ve never denied the authorities’ right or even their obligation to fight terrorism. On the contrary, we’ve adamantly suggested a civilized approach: a court order in exchange for handing over user data — and not correspondence, but just IP addresses and telephone numbers,” Chikov said.

Telegram founder Pavel Durov told the news outlet Current Time that the messenger needed a “real privacy policy” to comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect in late May.

Does this mean Telegram has made a deal with the Devil?

Probably not. Responding to concerns in Russia that Telegram might now cooperate with the FSB, Durov wrote in a blog post that “our privacy policy does not concern the situation in Russia,” stating that his company won’t currently consider any data requests from Russian intelligence agencies. Durov did, however, allow theoretically for the possibility that Telegram might observe its new privacy policy in Russia, should state officials call off their ban and agree to seek only IP addresses and telephone numbers through court orders. “We will continue our fight,” he wrote.

Russia’s federal censor previously said it would cease its attempts to block Telegram only if the messenger agrees to comply fully with the FSB’s orders to surrender the encryption keys for all user correspondence. On Tuesday, however, a spokesperson for Roskomnadzor told TASS that the FSB will review Telegram’s privacy policy revisions and decide if continued censorship is necessary.

While Russia’s encryption debate centers on counter-terrorism efforts (the legislation empowering the FSB to make its demands is part of the “Yarovaya anti-terrorism” amendments), it is anti-extremism policing that generates many of the country’s most controversial criminal cases.

Vkontakte, Russia's most popular social network and a company that regularly supplies the police with the information needed to press felony charges against users who share harmless memes, recently said that it, too, will start publishing transparency reports. The company has also promised new privacy controls that will allow users to make it harder for strangers to access their information.

Meduza’s Sultan Suleimanov compiled a list of questions raised by Telegram’s new policy that remain unanswered:

  • Whom will Telegram consider to be terrorists? (Does merely promoting terrorism qualify?)
  • Will courts need to appeal directly to Telegram, or is evidence of ongoing legal proceedings sufficient to warrant the surrender of user data?
  • How detailed will Telegram's transparency reports be?
  • Will Telegram notify users after sharing their data with state authorities?
  • Where is Telegram's guarantee that its privacy policy won't change again?
  • Why didn't Telegram warn users earlier about this policy change, if the messenger knew it would be necessary to comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation?