Two of the world’s great superpowers, Russia and China, are back in the cyber headlines. Each is dealing with a different issue which revolves around their governments alleged attempts at dominating the flow and control of internet and messaging services within their borders.
Two weeks ago, Russia announced a suspension of service against the Telegram messaging service. This was a result of Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, not allowing the Federal Security Service (FSB) access to its users’ messages. A court order had been issued to allow the FSB access to Telegram, ostensibly because the FSB needed it for routine cyber security operations such as preventing attacks or spreading militant propaganda. In denying this access, Telegram was blocked throughout the Russian federation in addition to many other sites and services such as payment service provider Qiwi as well as various Sony, Amazon and Google subnets.
Protests have taken place in Russia since the mass suspension began. Demonstrators have organised several paper plane protests; Telegram’s logo is a stylised paper plane.
Whilst the suspension was announced on 16th April, some Telegram users are able to continue using the service; Wired says that some government officials, including the Prime Minister, are still using Telegram and have been unaffected by the IP blocks. It has been suggested that through a clever tactic, Telegram traffic is disguising itself as Google traffic and therefore making itself harder for the pursuing authorities to track.
In China, it is being reported by the South China Morning Post that the Chinese government has access to ‘deleted’ messages of WeChat. WeChat is a Chinese messaging service in which users are able to wipe their chat histories but in a startling admission, the Chinese government admitted that it had viewed the deleted messages of a suspect in a corruption case. This has surprised some and outraged others who believe that the Chinese government is further tightening its grip on communication and free speech. China has had a long and complex history of controlling internet services within its borders; many international firms are not permitted to simply operate there and must set up a government-approved local subsidiary.
WeChat themselves have responded to this by insisting that deleted messages are that, deleted, and deny any knowledge that the Chinese government has compromised, or has access to, its service.
In both cases a messaging service is feeling the pressure applied to it by governments, authorities and judiciaries keen to keep track on what is going on and what is being said. It’s difficult to argue with two influential global players but many will still feel that the fight for free communication is possible and will carry on; when several hundered million users (close to a billion people are WeChat users alone) are blocked from accessing their messaging service in one swift action, it gets noticed.
Somewhat paradoxically, it is hard to prevent a story like this, denying communication to people, from being spread and sparking discussion. As is often said, the balance between free communication and government surveillance is tipped in nobody’s ideal favour. We await the next company to fall foul of an executive order in the pursuit of cyber security.