Telegram Now Being Targeted By Politicians Because Terrorists (Also) Use It

from the ineffective-noise dept

Victims of terrorist attacks are busy suing Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for supposedly providing material support for terrorism by not shutting down ISIS-related accounts fast enough. Twitter has gathered more negative attention than most, thanks to its inconsistent application of the “Twitter Rules.” Not only has it fielded lots of complaints from so-called “alt-right” figureheads, but non alt-righter Senator John McCain tends to use the service as a national security punching bag during periodic bitchfests hearings on phone encryption.

End-to-end encryption is also the bane of several governments’ existence, but even all this concern about unintercepted criminal communications has yet to tip the scale towards mandated backdoors. Instead, pressure is being applied in other ways. Twitter recently killed off a few hundred thousand terrorist-linked accounts, so those looking for a new terrorist support network d/b/a a social media service have begun sniping at secure messaging service Telegram.

Telegram has been the recipient of periodic signup surges, thanks to government action around the globe. WhatsApp, which recently added end-to-end encryption, has been routinely blocked by a handful of national governments, with Brazil denying access to its citizens most frequently. Every time WhatsApp is blocked, other encrypted messaging services see their user bases grow.

The same will happen with alternatives to Telegram, which is now being labeled as ISIS’s favorite chat app. The recent addition of a desktop version means encrypted communications aren’t limited to terrorists with cellphones. That’s apparently problematic, at least according to a few US legislators.

Just three days before the assault on the Berlin Christmas market, senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee urged Durov to immediately take steps to block content from the Islamic State, warning that terrorists were using the platform not only to spread propaganda but also to coordinate actual attacks.

“No private company should allow its services to be used to promote terrorism and plan out attacks that spill innocent blood,” stated the letter, signed by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), the chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on terrorism and nonproliferation, and Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

There’s a big difference between “allow” and “encourage,” but Rep. Ted Poe seems to think those terms are synonymous. Pavel Durov, the ousted founder of Russia’s Facebook, VKontakte, is the person behind Telegram, which recently added end-to-end encryption. Durov pushed back against what he felt were unlawful demands for information by the Russian government while helming VKontakte. He fled the country and now lives in “self-imposed exile,” stating that living in Russia is “incompatible” with running an internet-based communications platform.

So it’s unsurprising his next project has focused on secure messaging with social media trappings. One of the few effective tools against government interference is “invisible” communications, which is why dissidents, journalists, and activists embrace encrypted communications platforms. (Politicians use it too, because they love obliterating FOIA-able paper trails.) Obviously, this also works out well for criminals and terrorists, who are no more fans of government interference than those with more altruistic aims.

The Washington Post article is largely based on a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which actively monitors Telegram for ISIS activity. MEMRI has observed a large number of terrorist communications on the platform and says terrorists are migrating there from Twitter in large numbers. This is to be expected considering recent efforts by Twitter to purge more of these accounts.

However, the report — while pointing at the encryption and secret, invitation-only chat rooms provided by Telegram — also highlights the fact (inadvertently, perhaps) that terrorists aren’t nearly as security-focused as their new love for Telegram would suggest. Its post summarizing the report notes that terrorists are also using Tumblr blogs for communications and uploading content to the Internet Archive. (This might explain some of the NSLs the Internet Archive’s been receiving…) So, terrorists haven’t “gone dark,” at least not completely, and there are still open communications that can be scooped up and other metadata generated during Telegram use that might be instructive.

Also, the Washington Post’s coverage appears to buy into the silly moral panic here, using ridiculous terms like “military grade encryption,” which proves that whoever wrote the article doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

The problem with holding Telegram up as a villain is that efforts to kill or throttle the service are also going to harm thousands or millions of innocent people who are trying to keep their own oppressive governments from intercepting their communications. As Durov himself pointed out last year, any communications system like his is going to be used by bad guys as well. That’s just the nature of any communications platform.

It’s unclear at this point if US legislators are actually going after Telegram. At this point, they can’t do much more than sign letters and release statements of disapproval. Telegram isn’t an American company. If the US government decides US-based companies aren’t doing enough to fight terrorism, any pressure applied to those platforms that results in greater censorship or increased demands for user data will simply push users to services that haven’t been tampered with yet. This generally means communications sought by law enforcement will now be even further out of reach, controlled by providers located outside US borders.

The same goes for terrorists and criminals. No one’s going to sit around and wait to get swept up. Getting into a panic about an encrypted chat app does little more than advertise its effectiveness and send more users its way. And once it becomes a favorite target of governments, users will migrate to other platforms, starting the whole cycle over again.

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Comments on “Telegram Now Being Targeted By Politicians Because Terrorists (Also) Use It”

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27 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

Because there aren’t open source software out there that terrorists can’t simply set up their own Terrorgram and still do whatever they want while all the rest of us are screwed and forced to use less secure alternatives because the ‘legislatives’ of the world seem to be populated by idiots.

Or let’s ignore the fact that there are engineers, doctors and other specialists in their ranks so they could go and write their own stuff. And let’s further ignore the fact that they could and will disguise such applications as some inoffensive Tinder knock-off or a solitaire game.

Meanwhile let’s hope the world-ending meteor comes as soon as possible.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

thank you, a non cow, exactly the point i was going to make…
we are not only THE munitions supplier to the world (if that wssn’t deplorable enough on its face), BUT we also are DIRECTLY and indirectly responsible for the terrorists who buy them…
ffs, we are a vertically integrated terrorist organization…
we have met the terrorists, and it is us…
(with apologies to pogo)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“No private or public supplier of electricity should allow its goods and services to be used to promote terrorism and plan out attacks that spill innocent blood,”

“No private or public supplier of water should allow its goods and services to be used to promote terrorism and plan out attacks that spill innocent blood,”

“No private or public supplier of automobiles should allow its goods and services to be used to promote terrorism and plan out attacks that spill innocent blood,”

etc., etc., etc..

Anonymous Coward says:

Also, the Washington Post’s coverage appears to buy into the silly moral panic here, using ridiculous terms like “military grade encryption,” which proves that whoever wrote the article doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Just as a side note, while military grade encryption is usually just BS, there are in fact standards written, such as FIPS 140 which are basic guidelines of which cyptographic algorithms to use, how to handle failure, PKI storage, et al.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FIPS_140

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Telegram end to end encryption

The availability of “secret chats” (using Telegram’s home-brew crypto, which shouldn’t be trusted) is irrelevant, since they aren’t the default, and therefore aren’t used 99.9% of the time.

Telegram has run a PR campaign that has convinced people that their messages are encrypted by default. This is dangerous, and Telegram should be avoided.

Anonymous Coward says:

sometimes you just can't help it...

“No private company should allow its services to be used to promote terrorism and plan out attacks that spill innocent blood”

so, what about ma-bell or hell the entire internet?! we might as well put paper in there too, they’ve used it in the past i’m sure they’ll use it again. you heard it here, gov’t wants to BAN PAPER! i’ve heard they speak to each other too, up next: BAN AIR, or at least allow only the US gov’t access to the AIR and they can license it out with approved background checks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Apparently I have such a low opinion of government efforts thanks to Techdirt, that having not heard of Telegram as a messenger program, I thought you meant actual telegrams. And I wasnt surprised at the government doing such a thing, because I assumed theyd sink to pretty much anything, but rather that someone still ran a service that made use of such an old technology.

Pat Bryan (user link) says:

Poe

Congressman Ted Poe is a Tea Party “Freedom” Caucus drone whose political existence is facade and buzzwords. He engages in the topic of ‘Worldwide Terrorism, ISIS and Islamic Extremism, Oh My!’ only because it scares the shit out of his constituency to get his sorry butt reelected. He does what the leadership tells him, and is thoroughly ineffective.

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