It’s public knowledge that intelligence agencies in the US routinely try to add “we have a backdoor” to their arsenals of gathering data on unsuspecting users. Pavel Durov, the CEO at Telegram, revealed that he and another Telegram developer were both approached and offered a bribe by the FBI to give the agency backdoor access to the popular messaging app but refused to do so at every turn.
Since 2014, Durov claims that he has been quizzed at the US border several times but on his more recent visits the focus has shifted from Vkontakte, which he used to run, to Telegram which he currently runs; questions include things like where Telegram was based, how it worked, and how the agents could contact Durov in the future - he claims that they later sent emails asking him to reach out to them if he had any trouble or needed help with anything.
At Google’s 2016 I/O event in San Francisco, which Durov attended, two FBI agents allegedly met with Durov at a home he was renting through Airbnb. Durov says they wanted to set up an informal backchannel process that would enable Telegram to hand over the data of particular users in the event of a terror attack, the FBI apparently showed a court order to Durov which he gave to his legal team to look at.
Durov believes that because Telegram has no legal presence in the US that the company, therefore, has no obligation to co-operate with the FBI’s request and he described it as being a “ruse”. After hitting a dead end, the agents tried to give a Telegram developer, who was also at the event, tens of thousands of dollars to act as a sort of informer; this attempt failed too, says Durov, who went on to claim that that all the Telegram developers are paid well and that they’re “all millionaires.”
Describing his encounter with the FBI, Durov is noted as saying:
“In Russia, the FSB guys I’ve interacted with were not impressive. They were of middling ability; not really qualified. In the United States, the FBI is different. The ones who questioned me were competent. They spoke multiple languages. They had done their research, and knew exactly what questions to ask. They were of a high calibre. And I understood that America has so many resources dedicated to security that it is downright scary. Law enforcement in America is so much more efficient.”
By default, Telegram does not use its MTProto encryption scheme for chats – data not encrypted with this algorithm is, however, stored on Telegram’s distributed infrastructure and delivered to the servers in an encrypted fashion. Data is stored on multiple servers in different jurisdictions and the relevant keys are split up and are never kept in the same place as the data; this, therefore, requires several court orders for data to be obtained.