Is Telegram twisted?
This is the second in a series of articles about the relative advantages and disadvantages of various mobile telephone messaging applications. The first article considered WhatsApp. This article assesses its major European competitor, Telegram.
Telegram is more popular in Eastern Europe; WhatsApp more popular in Western Europe. Telegram is a Russian product, and it is owned by the group of companies that are part of Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov's empire. Usmanov, possibly Russia's richest man after the President of Russia, is an Uzbek with an oft forgotten rape conviction (he served prison time for rape in the 1980's) and a political ally, if not friend, of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also owns Kommersant, a sort of Russian version of the Financial Times although always towing the Russian President's line, and multiple other media interests in a similar vein.
If these facts alone don't make you think there might be something wrong with Telegram, you need your head examining.
The main problem with Telegram - and this is really a problem given that it is so popular with Russians, is that it is essentially insecure. This assertion needs exploring with care.
Telegram offers end-to-end Pretty Good Privacy encryption; but what it only mentions in the small print you never read is that this functionality only works if both you and your message interlocutor turn it on. It's standard setting is 'off'. End-to-end encryption only works if both ends have it turned on. Otherwise it is unencrypted. The Application does not tell you whether your interlocutor has turned it on; so you need to turn it on yourself (lots of security settings options and confusing pages) and then you need to check that your interlocutor has done the same thing. And you need to trust what they tell you. Otherwise it is unencrypted and everything is being hoovered up by the Russian government, who you may not want to be reading your communications. Or for that matter any other government. Reading unencrypted messaging communications is something within the power of any second rate government security or intelligence service.
Things get worse. Under Russian government pressure, Telegram has opened a backdoor to its encrypted security for the FSB, Russia's state security service. In practice this means that FSB officials are in Telegram's Russian offices, reading or recording whatever they want to. The FSB is an integral part of Telegram's operation.
We have discovered a Telegram statistic that 82 per cent of FSB requests to read encrypted Telegram messages are 'granted' by Telegram officials. We have no idea what this means; it sounds like pure Russian bullshit. You have been warned.
Of course the backdoor has been discovered by lots of other people, and indeed Telegram may even be selling it to them. Telegram is the worst imaginable 'encrypted' messaging service.
One thing Telegram does get right over WhatsApp is that it keeps its address books away from your 'phone address book. So you shouldn't have Telegram hoovering up your entire address book. But given the way Telegram is run, really who knows.
One agreeable feature of Telegram is that you can delete a message you sent to an interlocutor, both on their phone (including any attachment) and yours, seemingly virtually indefinitely after you sent it. But whether the FSB keeps a copy, really who knows.
It is probably safe to conclude that the Russian government knows which 'Telegram channels' (popular ways of streaming news and information to large groups of people) you are enrolled with. So if you joined a pro-Ukrainian Armed Forces Telegram channel, and you are in Russia, then you have probably made a big mistake.
Telegram is vulnerable to Pegasus (see prior article about WhatsApp).
The Application itself, installed on your telephone, does seem fairly robust. It is well written, it does not crash (WhatsApp can) and it does not appear to be a piece of spyware per se.
This author has Telegram installed, but he only uses it to receive the contents of Telegram channels that are interesting to him (because if you are interested in Russia and Ukraine then some of them really are very interesting); and communicating with the most stubborn of interlocutors, who refuse to use anything else. This author's working assumption is that all Telegram messaging and channels are insecure, both viz-a-viz the Russian government and any other government who wants to take a look.
If you have any interests in security, privacy or confidentiality whatsoever, Telegram is the pits of mobile telephone messaging applications. Virtually anything is better than this.