Pavel Durov, 32-year-old CEO of the encrypted messaging app Telegram and Kremlin foe, is under fire again. Russia’s Federal Security service has accused Telegram of enabling jihadists’ communication, and has linked his app to the latest St. Petersburg terrorist attack.
Durov is a controversial figure in Russia. He was dubbed “Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg” after he founded the Russian equivalent of Facebook, the social network VK, which quickly gained 350 million users. He only wears black, like Neo in “Matrix” and is allegedly always on the move ever since he was forced to sell VK in 2011. He fled Russia with $260 million fortune, and later developed Telegram.
Durov told the New York Times that the idea to create encryption app came to him after Russian officials asked him at VK to shut down government opposition groups. When he refused, his apartment was raided by the FSB, he claimed. He built Telegram under the slogan “Taking back our right to privacy.”
Launched in 2013 in New York the encrypted chat app has already gained 100 million users. Even though Durov claims that Russian market was never of interest to him, Telegram became the fourth-most-popular messaging app in the country, after WhatsApp, Viber and Skype. While launched with the idea of making it very difficult for governments to spy on its users—Telegram allows heavy encryption of its messages—the app is also popular among terrorists, according to reports.
On Monday, Russia’s FSB announced that the terrorists behind April’s St Petersburg suicide bombing used Telegram to carry out their plot. According to the statement, Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, 22, used the messaging app to keep in contact with his handler before detonating a handmade bomb in the subway.
Russia’s Roskomnadzor, the federal telecom agency, has demanded that Durov hands over encryption keys and register Telegram with a state-controlled database. The agency’s chief, Alexander Zharov, said that if Durov fails to do so Telegram will be banned in Russia. Zharov also accused Durov of “ignoring the safety of ordinary Telegram users” and being “neutral” toward the “terrorists and criminal who use his service.”
Durov dismissed the accusations, arguing that the government’s demand violates Russia’s constitution, which guarantees the right of “private communication.” He claimed that as many as 5,000 terrorism-related channels and groups have been blocked by Telegram since June. He also said that even if Telegram did not exist, terrorists would use a competing encrypted app and the risk would still be there.
“It shows the lack of understanding of what encryption is like in 2017,” he said. Durov insisted that Telegram will not hand the encryption keys to the government.