The Russian government has officially blocked access to the popular encrypted email service ProtonMail. The government claims it did this because it believes ProtonMail has been used to send fake bomb threats that could not be traced.
Russia claims it asked ProtonMail to help identify the people behind these threats and that the company did not comply, but representatives of ProtonMail claim this is not true.
“We have received reports that ProtonMail and ProtonVPN are currently partially blocked in Russia. We are reaching out to the appropriate authorities to get the block lifted as soon as possible. Despite the Government’s claims that we refused its request for assistance, no communications have yet been received from the Russian authorities," a spokesperson for ProtonMail tells Inverse.
The representative says the people sending these threats will simply use another service while ProtonMail is blocked, and this decision will "not be effective if the perpetrators were located outside of Russia." The company also believes these criminals will be able to get around the block using a VPN. Criminals will be able to continue doing what they're doing while Russians will lose a valuable tool for protecting their privacy, they say.
Russia blocked ProtonMail last year after police departments received several fake bomb threats they say were sent using ProtonMail, but it wasn't successfully blocked for long. It may be the case that ProtonMail will be up and running again in Russia, to some degree, in the not-too-distant future. However, Russia is getting better at censoring the internet.
All of this comes at a time when Russia is trying to censor large swaths of the internet by cutting off access to them entirely. Russia is essentially trying to create its own walled-off internet. The country plans to do this by having its internet service providers install deep packet inspection (DPI) devices in their systems, which will allow the government to block access to certain parts of the internet. Russia tested this out last month, and the tests were somewhat successful.
A ProtonMail representative tells Inverse that the company is "engaging with the relevant authorities and requesting that they remove the block." It is also trying to find "technical work-arounds to the problem" to restore access to ProtonMail.
"This is not the first time Russia has blocked ProtonMail and other privacy-focused services," the representative says. "But Russia is not the only place this happens. The United States has also worked against encryption. It’s unfortunate that we see governments taking a blanket approach to cybersecurity issues."
ProtonMail isn't the only encrypted email service Russia is now blocking. Another service called StartMail was reportedly blocked days earlier for the same reasons ProtonMail is being blocked. StartMail CEO Robert Beens wrote in a blog post that this is part of an effort to make it so Russian authorities have access to all encrypted communications. He claims StartMail was "added to a Russian Register of information distribution organizers without StartMail’s knowledge or consent."
"This Register is part of a recent Russian initiative to force foreign internet providers to make all Russian citizen data and all data encryption keys accessible to Russian authorities," Beens wrote. "To be clear: StartMail never registered for this register or contacted the Russian authorities in any way, nor has StartMail provided any information about StartMail users to the Russian authorities."
Russia, China and many other authoritarian governments around the world are working hard to find ways to close off parts of the internet, increase surveillance of their citizens and generally kill any semblance of privacy. These countries know that information is power, and the more they know about their citizens and the more they can control what their citizens know, the more control they'll have over them.