Six things to know about Telegram
Tuesday 18 July 2017

Six things to know about Telegram

Amid the controversy surrounding Telegram and its application in Indonesia, here are a few things to know about this free, non-profit cloud-based instant messaging service.

What is Telegram?

Telegram is a chatting app launched in 2013 that was first available on smartphones and later through the web, making it usable on PCs and laptops. One of the app's selling points that the company touted is the safety of chatting by encryption. It can also create groups containing up to 10,000 members, send multiple types of documents, store users’ media in the cloud and allow users to build their own tools using an application programming interface.

Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg

That’s the nickname belonging to one of the creators of Telegram, Pavel Durov. The CEO of Telegram, he and his brother Nikolai created the app that has gained 100 million users worldwide. Before heading the company, Durov founded social networking program VKontakte, which gained 350 million users, before he was pushed out.

Among Durov’s interesting aspects is his habit in only wearing black and casually using mocking GIFs to answer certain inquiries, even from the Russian government. Durov is on the move around the world with four of his employees after a run-in with the Kremlin over Vkontakte. He is reportedly using Airbnb to find lodgings.

Safe chatting

The part that gave Telegram an image as a safe chatting app is its encryption that protects the secrecy of contents considered personal or business secrets. Another feature to promote safety is the timed destruction of messages. This is why political activists in Russia use the app to circumvent their government’s censorship. The encrypted chatting is done using a feature called “secret chat” that provides encrypted local storage along with end-to-end encryption.

Alex Rad, a blogger with a background doing reverse engineering and app security, criticized the secret chat’s vulnerability to Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) attacks. This is dismissed by Telegram, but it admitted Rad’s critique was correct since the user authentication by SMS is vulnerable to interception, which they aim to resolve with their cloud-based authentication.

Home to terrorists?

The safety that Telegram promotes and which protects their users can be used to organize movements against a government disinclined to allow freedom of expression. On the flip side, it has the potential to be used to assemble members of a group for unsavory purposes.

Notable attacks carried out by terrorists said to be using the app include one in Paris, in which Telegram was reportedly used to spread propaganda, the Christmas attack in Berlin, in which the app was utilized to recruited personnel, the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul and the St. Petersburg attack. Government agencies worldwide have already demanded Telegram provide backdoor access to pre-emptively neutralize the terrorists using it.

The sudden ban

The Indonesian government announced a ban on Telegram’s products on July 14. The stated reason for this action was the claim that Telegram was used by terrorists to support their operations. The ban was applied starting July 17. The government’s move has been criticized by Safenet member Damar Juniarto as a short-term solution.

As reported by kompas.com, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo stated that the ban of the chatting app was done in the interest of national security. He also clarified that this decision came after a period of observation, when he said that it was found that Telegram was used for terrorist communications. President Jokowi also stated that Telegram has rebuffed offers for cooperation to control terrorist accounts.

Damage control

Soon after the ban, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov issued an apology. The firm also said that it will be forming a team of moderators specifically to tackle terrorism-related content. Durov said he was unaware of requests to deal with terrorist accounts collaboratively with the Indonesian government, but is now trying to rectify the situation.

Durov stated that the app blocked thousands of Islamic State-related contents monthly and was open to ideas about being better at tackling terrorists in Telegram. As a response to the government’s call for a ban, Telegram has done away with various public terrorist accounts. (dan/kes)