Telegram CEO’s Court Appeal Tests Russia Eavesdropping Laws, Technical Acumen

Telegram founder Pavel Durov has announced plans to appeal a Moscow court’s decision Monday to fine the encrypted messaging service some $14,000 (800 thousand rubles) for failing to provide law enforcement agencies with user information and access to private correspondences.

Providing security services with encryption keys to read users’ messaging data violates Russia’s constitution, he said in a post on Vkontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, which he co-founded in 2007.

“Everyone has the right to privacy of correspondence, telephone conversations, postal, telegraphic and other communications,” Durov said, quoting constitutional excerpts.

Russian special services need decryption keys to “expand their influence at the expense of the constitutional right of citizens,” he said, building on similar comments Durov made in September, when he announced that FSB officials had requested backdoor access to Telegram.

Russian security officials have said encryption codes are vital to protecting citizens against terror attacks such as those earlier this year in St. Petersburg, in which perpetrators, Kremlin officials says, communicated via Telegram.

According to Pavel Chikov, a prominent Russian human rights lawyer, the FSB state security organization (formerly KGB) is trying to gain technical access by announcing ultimatums and making threats. While fines levied aren’t too burdensome for a company of Telegram’s size, they do indicate an FSB willingness to block Telegram from continuing to operate in the country.

Third-party hackers

The situation, Chikov said, is similar to legal proceedings that resulted from FBI requests for encryption access to Apple iPhones — a request that ultimately was dropped, leaving federal investigators to rely on third-party hackers.

Secrecy, anonymity and “the ability to communicate in such a way that representatives of the state do not hear these conversations,” should also be respected in Russia, Chikov told VOA Russian.

“Generally speaking, if we are talking on [a conventional] telephone, the conversation is protected by constitutional guarantees,” Chikov said. However, Russian police and various state security agencies can obtain court-ordered warrants to tap the phone of specific individuals suspected of a plotting criminal activities — and they have the technical acumen required to do it.

Although privacy laws are generally the same for peer-to-peer text-messaging devices, Russian security agencies lack the technical sophistication to hack Telegram’s encrypted conversations.

Durov ‘most likely right’

Professor Ilya Shablinsky, a constitutional law expert with Moscow’s National Research University, says Durov is “most likely right” that FSB demands represent a constitutional violation, as allowing FSB access to Telegram would allow for users’ correspondence to be read.

“When that constitutional norm was drafted, correspondence was typically drafted on paper,” he said.

“And the Russian Constitution’s authors never envisaged a technological variant [such as Telegram]. In this case, we do not know exactly what kind of information the FSB requested, and what it means for Telegram to provide that information.”

According to Shablinsky, although a Russian court can demand access to correspondences of a specific individual who is suspected of committing a crime, it is not known whether the provision covers access to the decryption devices for an entire network of users.

The free instant-messaging app, which lets people exchange messages, photos and videos in groups of up to 5,000 people, has attracted about 100 million users since its launch in 2013.

Telegram threatened

In June, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state communications watchdog, threatened to ban Telegram for failing to provide user registration documents, which were requested as part of a push to increase surveillance of internet activities.

Although Telegram later registered, it stopped short of agreeing to Roskomnadzor’s data storage demands. Companies on the register must provide the FSB with information on user interactions; starting from 2018, they also must store all of the data of Russian users inside the country, according to controversial anti-terror legislation passed last year, which was decried by internet companies and the opposition.

Telegram has 10 days to appeal Monday’s decision.

‘No planned block’

Asked about a potential block of the service, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday said, “As far as I know … there is no discussion of a block at this time.”

But observers like Chikov say the risk is quite high.

“It is not necessarily going to happen right after the decision on the penalty comes into effect, as I believe that the authorities will still take a pause and try to negotiate with the company’s management,” he said. “However, with its refusal to provide access to correspondence, Telegram entered into direct conflict with the interests of the special services. Consequently, the political weight of people who decide to block is significantly higher than that of the same Roskomnadzor.”

Telegram, one-tenth the size of Facebook-owned rival WhatsApp, has caught on in many corners of the globe, including for a while with Islamic State as an ultra-secure way to quickly upload and share videos, texts and voice messages.

Durov, who has been described as “the Russian Mark Zuckerberg,” spent years fending off intrusions into his users’ communications, forging an uncompromising stance on privacy after founding VKontakte, only to lose control of that social media company for refusing Russian government demands to block dissidents.

Since leaving Russia in 2014 to set up Telegram in self-exile, Durov and his core team of 15 developers have become perpetual migrants, living only a few months at a time in any one location, starting in Berlin, then London, Silicon Valley, Finland, Spain and elsewhere. The company is incorporated in multiple jurisdictions, including Britain.

This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service. Some information for this report provided by AFP.

 

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White House: Judge’s Decision Halting Travel Ban ‘Dangerously Flawed’

The White House is reacting furiously to a federal judge blocking President Donald Trump’s latest executive order that would have banned entry to travelers from several countries beginning Wednesday.

“Today’s dangerously flawed district court order undercuts the president’s efforts to keep the American people safe and enforce minimum security standards for entry into the United States,” said a White House statement issued Tuesday shortly after Judge Derrick Watson ruled against restrictions on travelers from six countries the Trump administration said could not provide enough information to meet U.S. security standards.

The travel order would have barred to various degrees travelers from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

Watson’s temporary restraining order does not interfere with restrictions on North Korea and Venezuela.

Justice Department defends White House

The Justice Department “will vigorously defend the president’s lawful action,” the White House said, contending its proclamation restricting travel was issued after an extensive worldwide security review.  

The Justice Department called the ruling incorrect and said it will appeal the decision “in an expeditious manner.”

Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke said: “While we will comply with any lawful judicial order, we look forward to prevailing in this matter upon appeal.”

No change for North Korea, Venezuela

The new travel order “suffers from precisely the same maladies as its predecessor: it lacks sufficient findings that the entry of more than 150 million nationals from six specified countries would be ‘detrimental to the United States,'” Judge Watson wrote in his opinion.

The White House argues that its restrictions “are vital to ensuring that foreign nations comply with the minimum security standards required for the integrity of our immigration system and the security of our nation.”

Officials in the White House are expressing confidence that further judicial review will uphold the president’s action.

Hawaii involved for third time

Consular officials have been told to resume “regular processing of visas” for people from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, according to a State Department official.

The suit on which Judge Watson ruled on Tuesday was filed by the state of Hawaii, the Muslim Association of Hawaii and various individuals.

“This is the third time Hawaii has gone to court to stop President Trump from issuing a travel ban that discriminates against people based on their nation of origin or religion,” said Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin. “Today is another victory for the rule of law.”

Molly McKitterick contributed to this report.

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Canada: NAFTA’s Proposed Changes ‘Troubling’

Canada’s foreign minister says there are “unconventional” and “troubling” proposals on the table as Canada, the United States and Mexico seek to update the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The fourth round of talks on revising the 23-year-old NAFTA deal wrapped up Tuesday, with more talks set for Mexico next month and additional discussions early next year.

Canada’s Chrystia Freeland said proposals created “challenges,” and “turn back the clock” on NAFTA. Failure could threaten jobs across North America, she said. In addition, ending NAFTA could hurt the North American teamwork that produces cars efficiently and makes them competitive with products from other regions, she added.

Mexico’s Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said it was clear from the beginning that the talks would be tough and “we still have a lot of work to do.” He also said all nations “have limits.”

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the United States faces a large trade deficit, and blamed NAFTA for the loss of manufacturing jobs. He expressed frustration that his negotiating partners were not willing to make changes to reduce those deficits. 

NAFTA was harshly criticized by candidate Donald Trump, and press reports say Washington has since proposed renegotiating the deal every five years, requiring more U.S.-made content in automobiles, and scaling back a mechanism to resolve disputes. Trump has blamed what he called poorly negotiated agreements for the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs that hurt the U.S. economy. He promised to drive harder bargains in trade deals. 

The Brookings Institution’s Dany Bahar said trade deficits are not the cause of job losses, and called the U.S. focus misplaced. He said NAFTA’s dispute resolution mechanism and some other provisions could use some updating. However, he told VOA that NAFTA is closer to collapse than in previous rounds of talks. Such a collapse would mean U.S.-made cars would become more expensive and less competitive on world markets, likely making the United States the “biggest loser” if the trade deal fails, he said.

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2 US Senators Reach Accord on Health Law Changes, with Trump’s Support

Two key U.S. senators, a Republican and a Democrat, reached agreement Tuesday on a two-year deal to stabilize the country’s health insurance markets and give consumers the possibility of buying cheaper policies, a deal President Donald Trump said he supports.

The accord between Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and Democratic Senator Patty Murray came after weeks of negotiations between the two in the aftermath of failed efforts in recent months by the Republican-controlled Senate to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the seven-year-old health care law championed by former President Barack Obama commonly known as Obamacare.

Trump, at a White House news conference, called the deal, which would have to be approved by Congress, “a short-term solution.” Trump said he still wants to overhaul Obamacare under an already-defeated plan to send federal money to each of the country’s 50 states and allow them to set their own policies on providing health care for poorer Americans.

Trump last week ended subsidies to insurance companies, billions of dollars in reimbursements the government was paying to the insurers to offset their costs to provide cheaper insurance policies to low-income people.

Plan would restore payments

The Alexander-Murray agreement would restore those payments, a policy heavily favored by Democrats and some Republicans.

At the same time, in a proposal aimed at winning Republican support for the compromise, state governors, rather than state legislatures, would be given the right to approve insurance plans that provide “comparable affordability” to Obamacare plans on the market, Alexander said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said, “We’ve achieved stability if this agreement becomes law.”

But whether Congress will approve the Alexander-Murray proposal, even with Trump’s support, is uncertain. One Republican opponent of the law, Congressman Mark Walker of North Carolina, said Republicans “should focus on repealing and replacing Obamacare, not trying to save it. This bailout is unacceptable.”

Polls show support for Obamacare

While Democrats have uniformly lined up in support of Obamacare, Republican lawmakers have tried dozens of time, unsuccessfully, to repeal the law, which is anathema to them chiefly because it requires most Americans to buy health insurance, or pay a fine if they do not. No Republican voted for Obamacare in 2010 when a Democratic-controlled Congress narrowly passed it, with many Republican lawmakers calling it government over-reach because of the tax provision.

Since then, the law has gained in popularity, with national polls showing a majority of Americans want to keep it.

Most American workers get their health insurance coverage through their employers, with the government subsidizing health care payments for older, disabled and poorer Americans. Those most affected by the latest fight over the law are the 20 million people who get insurance under Obamacare, buying their insurance as individuals rather than helping pay for it at a workplace.

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Microsoft Rolls out new Windows 10 Update and Laptops

Microsoft has begun rolling out an update to its Windows 10 operating system, hoping to spark enthusiasm for its virtual- and augmented-reality ambitions.

 

The Windows 10 update became available Tuesday.

 

Several of Microsoft’s partners — Acer, Dell, HP and Lenovo — are simultaneously launching their first “Windows Mixed Reality” headsets Tuesday. Samsung is also releasing one early next month.

 

Microsoft is also announcing a new generation of laptops in its Surface line. Two versions of the new Surface Book 2 — one 13.5 inches and the other 15 inches — will go on sale next month.

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Trump Returns Favor by Campaigning for an Early Supporter

President Donald Trump waded back into Southern politics Monday, showering praise on one of his earliest supporters, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.

At a closed-door campaign fundraiser, Trump praised McMaster as his “friend” and “compatriot” and predicted McMaster would be the state’s governor for “many years,” according to video of the event posted by the South Carolina newspaper The State.

“He’s a terrific person, terrific man. He works so hard,” Trump told the crowd. “He loves South Carolina, he loves the people.”

Trump’s appearance at a private fundraiser for McMaster in Greenville came less than a month after the defeat of Sen. Luther Strange, the president’s preferred candidate in a Republican runoff for a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama.

McMaster greeted Trump at the airport in nearby Greer, South Carolina, before they traveled to an Embassy Suites hotel for the event. Two of the state’s Republican lawmakers in Washington, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Joe Wilson, flew with Trump on Air Force One.

Organizers closed the event to the news media, but several minutes of video were posted online by The State.

Some in heavily Republican South Carolina see similarities between McMaster and Strange, both with impeccable Republican credentials.

Strange fought same-sex marriage as Alabama attorney general. McMaster headed South Carolina’s GOP for years, was its top prosecutor and was elected lieutenant governor in 2014. Both men were elevated to their current offices by appointment. Strange was appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. McMaster was elevated to the governor’s office after Trump picked then-Gov. Nikki Haley to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Strange and McMaster took political risks to support Trump’s presidential candidacy. Known for rewarding loyalty, Trump backed their candidacies.

But Strange lost the nomination to Moore, who was twice removed as Alabama Supreme Court chief justice. The first removal was for defying a federal judge’s order to take down a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building. He was elected again but was permanently suspended after a judicial discipline panel ruled he urged probate judges to deny marriage licenses to gay couples. Moore was propelled by his support across the mostly white, evangelical-dominated state where voters have repeatedly embraced political outsiders who campaign heavily on defending their religious values and rebuffing the establishment.

Although he is the incumbent, McMaster isn’t receiving political deference: several Republicans are challenging him in the primary. His most formidable opponent thus far is Catherine Templeton, an anti-union attorney who served Haley as head of the state’s labor and public health departments.

The Trump administration tried to woo Templeton to Washington with a job at the Department of Labor, but Templeton passed. She has amassed a campaign war chest nearly commensurate to McMaster’s. Both are nearing $2 million cash on hand.

Some South Carolina political analysts question whether McMaster, who is entering his fourth decade in politics, may be relying too heavily on Trump’s support to boost his 2018 election chances. Chad Walldorf, a businessman who served in former Gov. Mark Sanford’s administration, said he sees the parallels with Alabama.

“I respect loyalty, but it seems that Trump is again misreading the situation on the ground, getting behind the establishment candidate who was not elected to his position, running against a credible agent of change who’s garnering more significant grassroots support,” he said, referring to Templeton. “At least from the voter standpoint, it seems to me that folks eager for change are eagerly jumping on the Templeton bandwagon.”

Trump, meanwhile, said McMaster was a “talented guy” and said he believed he was doing “really well.”

“You know I’m a poll person. Then I don’t believe ’em, but I like to read ’em anyway,” Trump said.

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TV Analyst and New York Deli Owner: An Immigrant’s Pursuit of a Dream

For the last year, the deli that Egyptian-American Hatem El-Gamasy owns in Queens, New York has been the backdrop to on-air discussions on U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs that are broadcast in Egypt. But when Egyptian broadcasters caught wind of his daytime job, the calls suddenly stopped. But VOA’s Ramon Taylor reports that El-Gamasy’s dream to achieve journalistic success carries on.

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Trump Claims Excellent Cooperation With Republican Lawmakers

President Donald Trump says he has excellent relationship with fellow Republicans in Congress. After a lunch meeting Monday Trump said he is “closer than ever before” to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican he had previously blamed for failing to accomplish the party’s agenda. Trump and McConnell promised speedy action to reform U.S. health care and slash taxes. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.

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McCain Condemns ‘Half-Baked’ Nationalism in Liberty Medal Acceptance Speech

U.S. Sen. John McCain jabbed Monday night at unnamed pushers of isolationist politics, saying at his National Constitution Center Liberty Medal ceremony in Philadelphia that abandoning America’s role as an international leader is “unpatriotic.”

The six-term Republican senator from Arizona made the remarks after receiving the award for a lifetime of service and sacrifice to the country. In addition to recalling his more than two decades of Navy service and his imprisonment in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp, McCain took a moment to go a step further than the night’s other speakers, who lamented what many described as a fractured political climate.

“To abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems,” he said, “is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”

He continued: “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil.”

None of the speakers, who included former Vice President Joe Biden, mentioned any current or former government officials during their remarks. But many referenced a time when bipartisanship – namely, the friendship between McCain and the Democrat Biden – wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“We often argued – sometimes passionately,” McCain said of himself and the former vice president. “But we believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions. We believed in the institution we were privileged to serve in.”

McCain joined the Navy in 1958 and rose to the rank of captain during his 22 years of service. In 1967, his plane was shot down over Hanoi, Vietnam, during a bombing mission, and he spent years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. He recently revealed that he’s fighting brain cancer.

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