BLOG Podchasov vs. Russia: ECHR Rejects Encryption Backdoors
David Schmid

Recently, the global conversation on digital privacy has been significantly influenced by the landmark case of "Podchasov vs. Russia" (ECHR Appl. No. 33696/19), a legal battle involving the messaging app Telegram and the Russian government. The ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stated that the storage of communications data without adequate safeguards against abuse cannot be regarded as necessary in a democracy society. The ruling specifically stands against encryption backdoors. It underscores the critical challenge of balancing state security measures with the fundamental human right of privacy and offers a legal precedent.

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In 2017, a significant legal battle unfolded in Russia, pitting the popular messaging app Telegram against the Russian government. This conflict was ignited by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)'s demands for the decryption of messages, a move rooted in the controversial "Yarovaya Law." This law mandates telecommunications services to assist security agencies in decrypting user communications, justified by the Russian government as a necessary step in combating terrorism and protecting national security.

Critics of the law argued that such measures would lead to the creation of a "surveillance state," where citizens' private communications could be monitored without substantial checks and balances. Telegram, renowned for its commitment to user privacy and strong encryption, found itself at the forefront of this debate.

In 2017, the FSB filed a lawsuit for the non-fulfillment of the Yarovaya law by Telegram, with the judgment delivered in favor of the FSB. According to Pavel Durov, one of the founders of Telegram, the FSB's requirements were not feasible:

“In addition to the fact that the requirements of the FSB are not technically feasible, they contradict Article 23 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation : "Everyone has the right to privacy of correspondence, telephone conversations, postal, telegraphic and other communications.” Source: Wikipedia "Blocking of Telegram in Russia" quoting

“If the FSB had confined itself to requesting information about several terrorists, its demand would fit in with the Constitution. However, we are talking about the transfer of universal encryption keys for the purpose of subsequent uncontrolled access to the correspondence of an unlimited circle of persons.” Source: Wikipedia "Blocking of Telegram in Russia" quoting Durov's Telegram Channel and

Anton Podchasov's legal battle began when the Russian government blocked access to the Telegram service in 2018. His involvement stemmed from his personal use of the app and his concerns over privacy rights, making him a key figure in the legal battle against the Russian government's demands for decryption. Podchasov's lawsuit, after being dismissed by the nation's supreme court, was ultimately taken up by the ECHR, which ruled in his favor.

Findings of the ECHR

In its landmark ruling on February 13, 2024, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a decisive judgment in the case of "Podchasov v. Russia," addressing a controversial issue at the intersection of privacy and state surveillance. The court's findings focused on the statutory requirements under Russian legislation, notably the controversial Information Act and Order No. 432 of July 19, 2016 (Yarovaya Law). These laws compelled information communications organizers, such as Telegram, to store all internet communications and related data and to provide this data, along with decryption tools (backdoors), to law enforcement upon request.

The ECHR closely inspected the far-reaching effects of this legislation, considering its substantial implications for users of communication services. The court underscored that the legislation indiscriminately affected all users, irrespective of any reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal or national security-threatening activities. This blanket approach raised serious concerns about the potential for unchecked state surveillance.

In its critical analysis, the ECHR identified several key issues:

The ECHR's conclusion was indisputable: the access to and potential misuse of electronic communications content, on such a generalized scale and without robust safeguards, severely impaired the right to respect for private life. This infringement was in direct violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court's ruling, thus, marked a significant moment in the ongoing global dialogue about the delicate balance between state security measures and the preservation of fundamental human rights in the digital era.

Limitations of the Ruling

While the ECHR's decision in the case "Podchasov vs. Russia" marks a stance in favor of privacy rights, it is important to understand the specific context and limits of this ruling:

This aspects underscore the complex balance between individual rights and national security interests that courts and governments must navigate.

Further Implications

The ECHR's ruling in "Podchasov vs. Russia" sets a precedent with far-reaching implications about the limits of state surveillance in the digital age. Governments grappling with the balance between security and privacy may need to reevaluate their laws and practices, especially those involved in collection and analysis of digital communications, such as UK's "Online Safety Bill". If similar requirements for weakening encryption are part of this bill, there is a potential concern that it might face challenges in domestic courts or even the European Court, based on the precedent set by this ruling.

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