This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
Telegram is a Dubai-based messaging app with a rebellious image and 400 million users. The app’s founder, Pavel Durov, once seen as the Russian Mark Zuckerberg, fled his native country in 2014 after allies of the Kremlin forcibly took over VKontakte, another social platform he launched.
The app often states it’s against big tech and for privacy rights. For instance, its FAQs state that “making profits will never be an end-goal for Telegram”. But despite marketing itself as a better, safer version of WhatsApp, the company’s privacy policies aren’t exactly squeaky clean.
Here are five reasons why Telegram isn’t the alternative we’ve all been waiting for.
CHATS AREN’T AUTOMATICALLY END-TO-END ENCRYPTED
End-to-end encryption ensures only the sender and receiver of a message can read it, while other people intercepting the data see it as a string of meaningless characters. WhatsApp has been offering this type of encryption automatically on all messages since 2016, while Telegram hasn’t.
Telegram chats are only encrypted if you individually activate the “secret chat” option for each of your contacts. However, if someone outside your contact list writes to you and, say, asks if you sell weed, your chat is no longer secure, even if you’ve activated the option for everyone you know. Telegram groups and channels are also not encrypted by default. If you found a group or channel by looking up a keyword in the app’s search engine, chances are your communications are not safe.
Telegram stores messages in “cloud chats”, which the company says can be analysed by “automated algorithms” to prevent phishing or spam. But a 2018 Motherboard investigation found that German cops had also been spying on Telegram groups’ messages for years.
Meanwhile, founder Pavel Durov keeps saying privacy is a fundamental right, and talking about the rivalry between Telegram and WhatsApp like a battle of good and evil. “The majority of internet users are still held hostage by the Facebook / WhatsApp / Instagram empire,” Durov wrote in a 2019 blog post titled “Why WhatsApp Will Never Be Secure”. “It’s either us or the Facebook monopoly. It’s either freedom and privacy or greed and hypocrisy,” he concluded.
Telegram did not respond to our questions about why end-to-end encryption is not standard.
TELEGRAM HAS ACCESS TO YOUR CONTACTS AND METADATA
Like WhatsApp, Telegram also collects metadata – including your IP address and device type – and stores it for up to a year. IP addresses can be used to track down individual users and even their movements.
This might seem like science fiction, but as former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden famously said, “We kill people based on metadata.” He was referring to a machine learning tool called SKYNET, which analysed the metadata of 55 million Pakistani phone users and determined drone strike targets for the US military. Between 2,500 and 4,000 people were killed by the US drone programme in Pakistan before SKYNET was revealed to the public by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2015.
TELEGRAM TOLERATES NAZIS AND CONSPIRACY THEORISTS
After being kicked out of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, many right-wing extremist and conspiracy theorist groups have finally found a home on Telegram. The platform currently hosts COVID-19 deniers in Germany, who often mingle with proponents of other extremist ideologies, like anti-Semites or QAnon followers. A VICE Germany investigation also showed how neo-Nazi music circulates freely on the platform.
Another report by the German child protection organisation Jugendschutz analysed 206 pieces of content considered illegal under German law, including Holocaust denial and incitement to hatred. They found Telegram failed to remove 89 percent of the reported content.
Founder Durov is a big supporter of freedom of speech. “Telegram has never yielded to pressure from officials who wanted us to perform political censorship,” he wrote in a blog post. But Telegram has actually cooperated with authorities in the past, specifically with Europol, removing up to 200,000 ISIS-related accounts per year. We asked Telegram why right-wing extremism isn’t targeted in the same way, but got no response.
GROUPS AND CHANNELS AREN’T SAFE
Telegram groups and channels are pretty convenient for mobilising big crowds. They can host hundreds of thousands of accounts, have plenty of cloud space to share videos and audio files, and offer semi-anonymity to users. That’s why Telegram has been used by activists in big protest movements like Hong Kong and Belarus, as Durov likes to remind us.
But according to business technology news site ZDNet, Hong Kong software engineers warned protesters in 2019 not to use the platform because their data was not secure. In fact, online tutorials show how to extract user information from Telegram groups and channels – including first and last names, and chat messages – with basic programming knowledge.
This information can be used by undemocratic regimes to track where a message has been forwarded from, or which users are members of multiple groups. By comparison, Facebook makes this type of analysis much harder. Telegram did not reply to our question about user data extraction.
TELEGRAM ISN’T FORTHCOMING WITH JOURNALISTS
Despite its alleged commitment to democratic values and freedom of speech, Telegram did not respond to requests for comment. We contacted their team both in February and August of 2020, and didn’t receive any reply.
CONCLUSION: DITCH TELEGRAM
Telegram has banked on its success as a hybrid between a messaging app and a social network, but it’s simply not a great choice if you’re looking for secure communication. Signal, Threema and Wire are better, although no provider is perfect.
Here is a detailed breakdown comparing the security of different messaging apps, so you can make an informed decision.