A messaging app called Telegram is increasingly popular among ISIS terrorists who want to hide their communications.
The Berlin-based startup offers two layers of encryption for its messages, meaning that their content cannot be seen outsiders. The company claims that the service is “faster and more secure” than WhatsApp, the rival messaging service owned by Facebook, writes Laurie Segall for CNN Money.
ISIS using encrypted messaging service to communicate
It’s “the new hot thing among jihadists,” said Laith Alkhouri, director of Research at Flashpoint Global Partners. Telegram lets users message contacts directly and send pictures or other files, in addition to creating group conversations with up to 200 members. It also offers an option for “special secret chats” in which messages, photos and videos will automatically self-destruct.
The app also offers “channels” on which users can broadcast messages. ISIS maintains its own channel, which recently broadcast a message claiming that the recent Paris attacks would be the “first of the storm.”
ISIS also claimed responsibility for taking down a Russian passenger jet on October 31.”A lot of people are now seeing Telegram advertised on ISIS supporter Twitter accounts,” said Alkhouri, who added that the ISIS Telegram channel publishes 10-20 statements and videos per day.
Russian founders of Telegram not motivated by money
Some terrorist elements also use Telegram to raise funds. There are jihadi-related channels on which users can donate money and choose what it will be spent on, including different kinds of weapons. “You can choose whether to donate your money to an AK-47,” Alkhouri said.
The app has come under limited scrutiny because it is not so widely known. It was launched in 2013 by Nikolai and Pavel Durov, two brothers, the latter of which is known as “the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia.”
Pavel Durov set up Vkontakte, the most popular social network in Russia, but then fled the country after refusing to hand personal user data to the authorities. The Telegram FAQs page reveals that the app is not motivated by profit, because it has “quite enough money for the time being.”
In fact the makers of the app want to improve on what they say are the failings of other mainstream companies. “Big Internet companies like Facebook or Google have effectively hijacked the privacy discourse in the recent years,” the site says.
Encryption presents challenges for law enforcement
Telegram is one of a number of startups offering secure, encrypted communication, an issue which rose to prominence thanks to Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA monitoring program. The revelation that ISIS terrorists are using Telegram to communicate in secret feeds into the ongoing debate about government oversight and how much privacy citizens can expect to have.
It has been noted that ISIS members meet on social networks like Twitter before switching to encrypted apps, which presents serious problems for law enforcement agencies tasked with monitoring their communications.
“Encryption is one of many ways that an adversary, whether that’s a criminal, a terrorist, a rogue nation, one of the many ways that they might use to hide their activities,” former NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis, told CNNMoney. “I saw dozens of times — more than that, likely — across my career that, in fact, was an obstacle for us.”
Pavel Durov took to Instagram on Tuesday, expressing sympathy for those who lost their lives but blaming the French government for the attacks. “I join all those who mourn deaths in the most beautiful city of the world. I think the French government is as responsible as ISIS for this, because it is their policies and carelessness which eventually led to the tragedy,” he wrote.