Russia's security agency wants to hack encrypted instant messaging apps like Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger or Skype. The idea is to monitor communications of Russian citizens, but some experts believe the plan, if successful, could pose a to risk to anyone who uses them anywhere.
These apps use encryption to keep data safe between sender and receiver. But Russia's Parliament passed a law in July requiring the Russian security agency, known as the FSB, to possess the ability to crack these systems using special electronic "backdoor" keys to get inside.
So this month, the Russian Ministry of the Interior asked the Russian internet security firm Con Certa to look into the project and hire local firms to break the apps, according to a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant.
One Moscow-based expert is skeptical that the FSB will break the code. Andrei Soldatov, author of the book "The Red Web" about the history of Russia's surveillance programs, said the FSB tried and failed last year to hack the secure Tor Network, a volunteer group that protects activists, journalists and non-governmental organizations from government hacking or surveillance.
"Basically, they have no clue," Soldatov said via Skype from his Moscow office. "It's good news because we are living in the era of end-to-end encryption."
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Soldatov speculates that the new contract may allow the FSB to show Russian legislators that it's not possible to hack the apps. It also means that Russia doesn't have enough political or economic leverage to force Western social media companies to provide the necessary keys to allow surveillance.
"There is no Moscow office of Telegram or Signal or Facebook," he said.
In Russia, federal law allows security forces to monitor phone, internet and e-mail traffic. But these encrypted systems have proved more difficult, Soldatov explained.
Still, there is cause for concern. Instead of hacking the pipeline through which people send messages, one solution may be hacking of the devices themselves, said Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist and a senior vice president at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
"(Messages) can be secure within the tunnel, but they still have to appear on your phone," Lucas said. "The FSB has inherited the electronic surveillance capabilities of the KGB and a lot more. It's the (U.S. National Security Agency) cubed."
Lucas says the FSB spies on Russian citizens just as the NSA spies on citizens of other countries. The new effort to defeat well-encrypted messaging apps could be a bluff.
"This is more designed to make people in the West feel they are not safe," Lucas added.
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In recent months, Russian-based hackers have been linked to the release of e-mails from Hillary Clinton's campaign, the Democratic National Committee, several members of Congress and denial-of-service attacks on the websites of Washington-based think tanks.
The FBI has said it is investigating the release of the e-mails, but so far there hasn't been a public response from the White House.
Soldatov doesn't believe that the FSB plan to open encrypted apps will work, but he predicts a bigger problem coming soon. Russian and Chinese internet security officials met in April in Moscow and will meet again in October in the Chinese capital of Beijing. The meetings may include a discussion of new ways to censor Russian citizens' use of the internet, as well as building a back-up, stand-alone internet infrastructure that can be controlled and monitored within Russian borders.
"The idea is that the west might try to cut off the internet from Russia, that's why (the Russian government) needs to replicate critical elements inside of the country," Soldatov said. "Which means to have servers put under government control along with distribution centers and critical internet exchange points. That might be really damaging."
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