Zello is an encrypted app which acts as a kind of ‘walkie-talkie’, assisting communication between close friends or in groups of up to a thousand people.
Zello gained a lot of publicity in 2017 when it was used as an unofficial rescue co-ordination tool while Hurricane Harvey was battering the United States. It soon shot to the top of the download charts after being downloaded a million times in a day.
While Zello is a great tool, it is not popular with the Russian government. Under the so-called ‘Yarovaya law‘, services like Zello, plus ISPs and other telecoms companies, are required to pre-register with Russian telecoms watchdog Rozcomnadzor. They are also required to share encryption keys so that law enforcement can decrypt messages.
Zello has reportedly done neither and as a result is being targeted by the Russian government, which has tried to block it more than 70 times since April 2017.
As reported last month, local telecoms watchdog Rozcomnadzor told ISPs to carry out “a new experiment” to block 15 million IP addresses – most of them owned by Amazon – to take the app down.
Zello co-founder Zello Alexei Gavrilov later revealed that Amazon had effectively told his company not to use its services anymore.
“The latest in this story: let’s block half the Internet for Zello’s sake,” he said.
“Half the Internet was not blocked, but nevertheless, it had some effect, and as a result, Amazon came to us, whose service we used, and Amazon asked us not to do what we did to circumvent the blocks using the Amazon platform.”
But despite the Amazon ban, Zello still managed to keep operating by using the services of another hosting company. It now transpires that at least in part, Zello is being kept on the air by Google, whose services the comms app now uses. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Russian authorities who are now taking steps to hit Zello in its new home.
Vedomosti reports that telecoms watchdog Rozcomnadzor has already taken sweeping action by blocking 286 IP addresses and 285 domains belonging to Google, which have now been added to Russia’s national blacklist.
“Technical domains and Google addresses have been entered in the register of prohibited resources on the basis of the request of the General Prosecutor’s Office – in connection with the restriction of access to the Zello service,” the publication reports.
News site Roskomvoboda reports that the blocking of Google IP addresses and domains was scheduled to go ahead last week, including many under googleusercontent.com, the domain used for loading content from the Google CDN.
Telecoms watchdog Rozcomnadzor insists that blocking the Google addresses won’t affect the operation of other Internet services but a representative from Roskomvoboda said that is impossible to predict or guarantee, given the fluid nature of IP address allocation.
In any event, Zello continues to operate so that’s one service that remains unaffected by the drastic action.
It seems unlikely that Russia will give up trying to block Zello. While the software has been used for humanitarian causes, it has reportedly been used by workers coordinating strikes and even terrorist groups. The same can be said of any communications system, of course, but since Zello is end-to-end encrypted, the authorities want the ability to listen in.
Founded in Russia but now based in the US, Zello doesn’t want to share its keys with Russia, nor does it want to store the telecoms data of 400,000 Russian users as local law now dictates.
Amendments to come into force this year requires services like Zello to store the actual content of user communications for six months and metadata (such as who communicated with who, when, and for how long) for three years. At least for now, Zello doesn’t intend being spied upon.