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Telegram is the app of choice in the war in Ukraine despite experts' privacy concerns

An iPhone screen shows a Telegram account of OVD-Info, prominent legal aid group in Russia that tracks political arrests in Moscow.
Alexander Zemlianichenko
/
AP
An iPhone screen shows a Telegram account of OVD-Info, prominent legal aid group in Russia that tracks political arrests in Moscow.

Artem Kliuchnikov and his family fled Ukraine just days before the Russian invasion.

Now safely in France with his spouse and three of his children, Kliuchnikov scrolls through Telegram to learn about the devastation happening in his home country.

"Like the bombing of the maternity ward in Mariupol," he said, "Even before it hits the news, you see the videos on the Telegram channels."

He adds: "Telegram has become my primary news source."

As the war in Ukraine rages, the messaging app Telegram has emerged as the go-to place for unfiltered live war updates for both Ukrainian refugees and increasingly isolated Russians alike.

What distinguishes the app from competitors is its use of what's known as channels: Public or private feeds of photos and videos that can be set up by one person or an organization. The channels have become popular with on-the-ground journalists, aid workers and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who broadcasts on a Telegram channel. The channels can be followed by an unlimited number of people. Unlike Facebook, Twitter and other popular social networks, there is no advertising on Telegram and the flow of information is not driven by an algorithm.

Andrey, a Russian entrepreneur living in Brazil who, fearing retaliation, asked that NPR not use his last name, said Telegram has become one of the few places Russians can access independent news about the war.

"There are several million Russians who can lift their head up from propaganda and try to look for other sources, and I'd say that most look for it on Telegram," he said.

Telegram, which does little policing of its content, has also became a hub for Russian propaganda and misinformation. Many pro-Kremlin channels have become popular, alongside accounts of journalists and other independent observers.

"Russians are really disconnected from the reality of what happening to their country," Andrey said. "So Telegram has become essential for understanding what's going on to the Russian-speaking world."

Founder Pavel Durov says tech is meant to set you free

Telegram was founded in 2013 by two Russian brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov.

Pavel Durov, Telegram's CEO, is known as "the Russian Mark Zuckerberg," for co-founding VKontakte, which is Russian for "in touch," a Facebook imitator that became the country's most popular social networking site.

In 2014, Pavel Durov fled the country after allies of the Kremlin took control of the social networking site most know just as VK. Russia's intelligence agency had asked Durov to turn over the data of anti-Kremlin protesters. Durov refused to do so.

"And that set off kind of a battle royale for control of the platform that Durov eventually lost," said Nathalie Maréchal of the Washington advocacy group Ranking Digital Rights.

In a message on his Telegram channel recently recounting the episode, Durov wrote: "I lost my company and my home, but would do it again – without hesitation."

After fleeing Russia, the brothers founded Telegram as a way to communicate outside the Kremlin's orbit. They now run it from Dubai, and Pavel Durov says it has more than 500 million monthly active users.

In 2018, Russia banned Telegram although it reversed the prohibition two years later.

Pavel Durov, CEO and co-founder of Telegram speaks onstage during day one of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2015.
Steve Jennings / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Pavel Durov, CEO and co-founder of Telegram speaks onstage during day one of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2015.

Pavel Durov, a billionaire who embraces an all-black wardrobe and is often compared to the character Neo from "the Matrix," funds Telegram through his personal wealth and debt financing. And despite being one of the world's most popular tech companies, Telegram reportedly has only about 30 employees who defer to Durov for most major decisions about the platform.

"He has kind of an old-school cyber-libertarian world view where technology is there to set you free," Maréchal said.

Just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Durov wrote that Telegram was "increasingly becoming a source of unverified information," and he worried about the app being used to "incite ethnic hatred."

He floated the idea of restricting the use of Telegram in Ukraine and Russia, a suggestion that was met with fierce opposition from users. Shortly after, Durov backed off the idea.

Some privacy experts say Telegram is not secure enough

Despite Telegram's origins, its approach to users' security has privacy advocates worried.

Messages are not fully encrypted by default. That means the company could, in theory, access the content of the messages, or be forced to hand over the data at the request of a government.

"There is a significant risk of insider threat or hacking of Telegram systems that could expose all of these chats to the Russian government," said Eva Galperin with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has called for Telegram to improve its privacy practices.

Recently, Durav wrote on his Telegram channel that users' right to privacy, in light of the war in Ukraine, is "sacred, now more than ever."

Individual messages can be fully encrypted. But the user has to turn on that function. It's not automatic, as it is on Signal and WhatsApp.

The gold standard of encryption, known as end-to-end encryption, where only the sender and person who receives the message are able to see it, is available on Telegram only when the Secret Chat function is enabled. Voice and video calls are also completely encrypted.

But because group chats and the channel features are not end-to-end encrypted, Galperin said user privacy is potentially under threat.

"There are a lot of things that Telegram could have been doing this whole time. And they know exactly what they are and they've chosen not to do them. That's why I don't trust them," she said.

But Telegram says people want to keep their chat history when they get a new phone, and they like having a data backup that will sync their chats across multiple devices. And that is why they let people choose whether they want their messages to be encrypted or not. When not turned on, though, chats are stored on Telegram's services, which are scattered throughout the world. But it has "disclosed 0 bytes of user data to third parties, including governments," Telegram states on its website.

"The argument from Telegram is, 'You should trust us because we tell you that we're trustworthy,'" Maréchal said. "It's really in the eye of the beholder whether that's something you want to buy into."

But Kliuchnikov, the Ukranian now in France, said he will use Signal or WhatsApp for sensitive conversations, but questions around privacy on Telegram do not give him pause when it comes to sharing information about the war.

"We as Ukrainians believe that the truth is on our side, whether it's truth that you're proclaiming about the war and everything else, why would you want to hide it?," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.