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Russia’s ProtonMail block – New revelations and information


This blog post will be available in Russian shortly.

Этот пост будет переведен на русский язык в скором времени.

On Jan. 29, the Russian government announced via an official website that effective immediately, ProtonMail would be blocked in Russia. Since then, it has not been possible for users on most Russian networks to reach ProtonMail without using a VPN or Tor.

If you are a user in Russia facing this block, we recommend taking the following steps:

  • Use Tor to access ProtonMail. The Tor network routes your Internet traffic through special Tor servers in such a way that makes it extremely difficult to block. We recommend you use the Tor Browser to access the Tor network. 
  • Complain to MTS, Rostelecom, and the other major Russian Internet service providers. If enough people complain, these ISPs and the Russian government may reconsider their approach.

To continue providing services to our users in Russia, we are currently reaching out to Russian authorities to contest the block as we believe it to be disproportionate, unjustified, and counterproductive. In parallel, we are also working on other solutions that would allow service to be restored without requiring the usage of Tor.

Background

Officially, the block was put in place because bomb threats have been sent to numerous Russian cities via ProtonMail. Blocking access to ProtonMail is an ineffective and inappropriate response to the reported threats. It will not prevent cybercriminals from sending threats with another email service and will not be effective if the perpetrators are located outside of Russia. The cybercriminals will also likely be able to bypass the block using Tor or a VPN, and they will almost certainly have this technical capability. However, the block does deny regular, law-abiding citizens of Russia access to secure email and privacy. That’s why we condemn this block as a misguided measure that only serves to harm ordinary people.

ProtonMail is a well-known privacy and security tool which happens to be the favored email service for portions of the Russian population in favor of a more free and democratic Russia. We have always stood for democracy and freedom, and these bomb threats may just be a convenient pretext to block ProtonMail.

This is not the first time the Russian government has targeted us. In an earlier attempt to block ProtonMail in March 2019, the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) made similar bomb threat claims. That block was only temporary and was swiftly overcome. Unlike the previous time, however, this time the Russian government released an official statement.

Inaccurate statements by the Russian government

In their official statement, the Russian government alleged that we “responded with a categorical refusal to Roskomnadzor’s (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) repeated requests for information” and that “Information about the administrators of the mailboxes used to send threats has not been provided.” This is categorically false.

ProtonMail is a Swiss company bound by Swiss laws. Making bomb threats is a crime under Swiss law, and we have a zero-tolerance policy for criminal acts committed using ProtonMail. We offer our full cooperation with law enforcement authorities on all criminal matters, including those that take place outside of Switzerland, subject to judicial review and approval from Swiss authorities. In 2018 alone, we complied with 76 such foreign requests for assistance, as detailed in our transparency report.

Despite the Russian government’s claims to the contrary, we never received any request for assistance or information regarding the case in question. Furthermore, the Swiss government has also confirmed to us that no such request for assistance was transmitted from Russian authorities. So not only did we not refuse to assist with an investigation, we were never even asked before the Russian government decided to block ProtonMail.

Therefore, the statements from the Russian government are inexplicable to us. There seems to be no justification for why they did not seek assistance under established international procedures. However, since making bomb threats is illegal under Swiss law, despite the absence of information or evidence from the Russian government, an investigation was also opened in Switzerland.

Our investigation confirmed that bomb threats were indeed sent from ProtonMail, and we obtained copies of the emails sent from our systems from third-party sources. All accounts involved have now been identified and permanently disabled. What subscriber information we have has also been preserved as required by Swiss law and can be delivered to Russian authorities upon receipt of an official request through the Swiss Federal Police.

This option has always been available to Russian authorities and their reluctance to reach out to us or to Swiss law enforcement for assistance has only served to hamper the speedy apprehension of the parties responsible for these bomb threats. 

During the previous ProtonMail block in Russia in March 2019, many observers noted that the shutdown might have had more to do with the mass protests happening around Russia at the same time, in which Russian citizens were demanding greater online freedom. There are also strange circumstances surrounding the latest block.

The bomb threats began after BBC Russia obtained documents (reportedly confirmed by two sources) that alleged that approximately $450 million was stolen with the involvement of the FSB and published an investigative report. Follow up investigative reporting revealed that the bomb threats against Russian cities are likely in retaliation for the FSB’s alleged role in the theft.

ProtonMail is obliged by Swiss law to assist criminal investigations

Irrespective of the true cause, Proton is clearly not responsible for the bomb threats nor an adversary to be blocked. On the contrary, we are committed to helping to bring the perpetrators to justice. As Switzerland generally accepts all legitimate foreign law enforcement requests, and we operate in full compliance with Swiss law, we are also likely the best source of assistance to bring an end to these threats.

We ask that the Russian government reconsider its position and work together with us to resolve this matter through dialog and mutual assistance. It is only through global cooperation that these threats can be eliminated, and we look forward to rendering assistance within the framework of Swiss law.

Best Regards,
The ProtonMail Team

The post Russia’s ProtonMail block – New revelations and information appeared first on ProtonMail Blog.

*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from ProtonMail Blog authored by Andy Yen. Read the original post at: https://protonmail.com/blog/russia-block-2020/



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