Russian government blocks ProtonMail services for its citizens

3 min read

Yesterday, ProtonMail, reported that the Russian government has blocked Russian citizens from sending any messages to the encrypted email provider. This block was issued by the Federal Security Service via a secret letter dated 25 February. According to the letter, the Russian intelligence agency ordered two of the largest Internet service providers in Russia, MTS and Rostelecom, to block traffic from Russia going to our mail servers, thus preventing Russian mail servers from communicating with ProtonMail.

On Monday, March 11, a firm called TechMedia obtained a copy of the letter and published it on the Russian tech blogging platform, Habr. The blog also accused ProtonMail and several other email companies of facilitating fake bomb threats. During late January, the Russian police received several anonymous bomb threats via email, which led to a forced evacuation of government buildings schools, rail stations, shopping centers, and offices.

A total of 26 IP addresses were blocked after the order was issued. This also included servers used to scramble the final connection for Tor users. “Internet providers were told to implement the block “immediately,” using a technique known as BGP blackholing, a way that tells internet routers to simply throw away internet traffic rather than routing it to its destination”, TechCrunch reports.

ProtonMail chief executive Andy Yen, said, “ProtonMail is not blocked in the normal way, it’s actually a bit more subtle. They are blocking access to ProtonMail mail servers. So — and most other Russian mail servers — for example, is no longer able to deliver email to ProtonMail, but a Russian user has no problem getting to their inbox.”

The two ProtonMail servers listed by the order are its back-end mail delivery servers, rather than the front-end website that runs on a different system.

Yen said, “The wholesale blocking of ProtonMail in a way that hurts all Russian citizens who want greater online security seems like a poor approach”. He further added, “We have also implemented technical measures to ensure continued service for our users in Russia and we have been making good progress in this regard. If there is indeed a legitimate legal complaint, we encourage the Russian government to reconsider their position and solve problems by following established international law and legal procedures.”

According to the ProtonMail blog, “Due to the timing of the block, some ProtonMail users in Russia suspect that the block may be related to the mass protests this past weekend in Russia where 15,000 people took to the streets to protest for more online freedom.”

Meanwhile, ProtonMail has listed down a few recommendations for its Russians users, which include:

1) Using a VPN service as this allows most blocks to be circumvented. All ProtonMail users also have access to ProtonVPN, a free VPN service that the email provider operates on.

2) Encouraging other contacts to use ProtonMail. The blocks attempted by the Russian government do not and cannot impact communications between ProtonMail accounts in Russia.

3) Complain to MTS and Rostelecom. According to ProtonMail, if enough people complain, these ISPs and the Russian government may reconsider their approach.

One of the users wrote on HackerNews, “This situation really pissed me off. FSB (Russian FBI) had problems with receiving bomb threats coming from Protonmail addresses. So, they secretly ordered (with an almost classified order) major ISPs to block Protonmail bypassing Russian’s existing website/IP addresses blocking scheme.”

To know more about this news in detail, visit ProtonMail’s official blog post.

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