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Russia Reverses Plan To Ban Encrypted Web Services

The head of the Federal Security Service labels Gmail, Skype, and their ilk as a "threat to Russia's security."

How do you say about-face in Russian?

On Saturday, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), which is the country's main successor to the Soviet-era KGB (Russia's former secret police and intelligence agency), announced that it wanted to ban Skype, Gmail, Hotmail, and other types of Web mail that utilize encryption.

In a release made via Russia's official news agency, Itar-Tass, the head of the FSB's information and special communication center, Alexander Andreyechkin, said that "uncontrollable use of such services can create a major threat to Russia's security." Rather than tolerating foreign encryption algorithms, which are difficult or impossible for the FSB to crack, the agency recommended blocking them entirely.

Many governments would chalk up such an unpopular viewpoint to having been a personal opinion, but officials said that he was speaking for his agency. "FSB representatives don't express personal points of view. Naturally, that was the position of the agency," said Dmitry Peskov, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin's press secretary, according to the Itar-Tass release. But he also clarified that the view had been expressed in a government meeting in which agencies shared their viewpoints, and which had largely been held behind closed doors.

Soon after, however, Igor Shchyogolev, who heads the Russian Ministry of Communications, contradicted the FSB, telling Itar-Tass that while the government wanted to regulate such foreign services, it had no intention of blocking them. Confusingly, members of Andreyechkin's own agency then began commenting that the FSB was only interested in regulating the online services, not banning them, according to The Moscow Times.

In fact, said the newspaper, the FSB's statement had apparently escalated into a dispute between Putin and Russian president Medevev--who's nominally in charge of the FSB--that ultimately led to the FSB backtracking. The emphasis is on "apparent" because Putin, who's seen as the person wielding the most power in Russia, and Medevev, his hand-picked successor, typically choreograph any statements they make in public.

Accordingly, the statement by the FSB could merely be a feint designed to make such companies as Google and Microsoft give up their encryption algorithms. In that case, Russia would be taking a page from the recent campaign waged by multiple countries, including India and United Arab Emirates, to force BlackBerry maker RIM to provide government agencies with access to BlackBerry email servers.

"The countries that threatened a ban on Blackberry use reached an agreement with RIM, the Blackberry manufacturer, that allowed usage to continue uninterrupted, details of this compromise have never been revealed," said Rik Ferguson, director of security research & communication at Trend Micro, in a blog post.

Where do technology companies stand in relation to Russian authorities? Microsoft said it's willing to cooperate with authorities. Likewise, a Google official told The Moscow Times that it would cooperate, but noted that the FSB hadn't ever submitted a request for information about Google users. Contrast that with authorities in the United States, which submitted 4,287 data requests last year, according to the Google Transparency Report.

If improving Russia's security by finding criminals or terrorists is the FSB's primary concern, then why hasn't it ever queried Google for information on specific users?

For now, the next step in Russia is a committee. According to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, a working group will create policies for using "cryptographic tools in public communications networks," delivering its proposals by October 1, 2011. But only state agencies--and national telecommunications provider Rostelecom--will be involved. The committee will be chaired by Putin.

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